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Non-Sleep Deep Rest (NSDR)

What is Non-Sleep Deep Rest (NSDR)?

Non-Sleep Deep Rest (NSDR) is a fascinating state of being where you're neither fully awake nor asleep. In this state, your mind quiets, your heart rate slows down, and you're enveloped in a profound sense of peace and restfulness. Think of it as hitting the "refresh" button for your mind and body without having to log out of consciousness.

You could say that NSDR is like a unique mental and physiological ZIP code. Neuroscience shows (Steyn-Ross 2017) us that during NSDR, your brain exhibits wave patterns that are distinct from both typical wakefulness and sleep. Your parasympathetic nervous system kicks in, dialing down your "fight or flight" responses. You're not just chilling; you're giving your body permission to go into deep maintenance mode while your mind stays online.

Historic Roots

The concept of Non-Sleep Deep Rest might sound modern, but its roots can be traced back to various ancient philosophies and spiritual traditions. These practices aimed to achieve a similar state of mindful relaxation that rejuvenates the body and mind without the need for sleep. There are several comparisons to other traditions that are interesting to consider.

Eastern Roots

  • Zen Buddhism: The concept of 'Zazen' or seated meditation in Zen aims for a state of alert yet restful awareness, which has similarities with NSDR.
  • Vipassana: This ancient Buddhist practice also involves a focused, yet relaxed, state of mind that aims for deep insights into the nature of reality.

Western Philosophical Links

  1. Greco-Roman Philosophies: Contemplative practices were highly valued, whether it was Aristotle's idea of "contemplative life" or Stoicism's focus on meditative reflections.

Religious Connections

  1. Christian Contemplative Prayer: Christian mystics often speak of a restful contemplative state that brings them closer to divine awareness.
  2. Sufi Dhikr: In Islamic Sufism, the practice of Dhikr involves the repetitive uttering of short phrases or prayers that bring about a focused, peaceful state.

The Universal Pursuit

Whether it's spiritual enlightenment, mental clarity, or physiological rest, various traditions have revered this state of conscious rest. It's not just a 'trendy' phenomenon but a deeply embedded aspect of human civilization and spiritual aspiration. This pursuit transcends religious and cultural boundaries, hinting at something universal in the human condition—a need for restorative stillness that isn't tied to sleep.

So, while the term "NSDR" might be modern, the essence of what it seeks to capture is ancient and universal. It's not merely a trend but a reframing and reconceptualization of practices and states of being that humanity has valued for millennia.

Modern Relevance

In today's fast-paced, always-connected world, the concept of Non-Sleep Deep Rest has gained renewed interest, particularly in countries where stress levels are skyrocketing. The modern lifestyle, laden with constant digital distractions, work pressures, and societal expectations, leaves little room for genuine rest. It's not just the absence of physical exertion people crave; it's a deeper form of mental and emotional relaxation that sleep alone may not provide.

Why is NSDR gaining traction, especially in the most stressed-out countries? Firstly, there's an increasing body of scientific research supporting the benefits of states akin to NSDR. The ability to quickly switch from the stress-inducing sympathetic nervous system to the calming parasympathetic nervous system holds promise for immediate stress relief. Add to this the growing evidence of the role of mindfulness in everything from reducing anxiety to improving cognitive function, and you have a compelling case for the utility of NSDR in modern life.

Secondly, people are becoming increasingly disillusioned with quick-fix solutions like pharmaceuticals or substance use for dealing with stress. In contrast, NSDR offers a natural, self-directed way to manage stress and emotional turbulence, making it an attractive option for those seeking more sustainable paths to well-being. Also, as diverse spiritual practices become more mainstream, the cultural stigma surrounding practices that lead to states like NSDR is diminishing, making it more accessible to the general populace.

Lastly, there's a genuine cultural shift happening—a move towards holistic well-being. People are now more interested in comprehensive wellness plans that include not just physical health but also mental, emotional, and even spiritual well-being. NSDR fits snugly into this broader perspective, serving as a tool that addresses multiple dimensions of health.

The Potential and Benefits

This isn't just about feeling relaxed; it's a functional reset. NSDR has been shown to lower blood pressure, reduce inflammation, and even enhance cognitive function. Emotional benefits are a big deal too—NSDR can help with mood regulation and stress management, making it a potential game-changer in treating conditions like anxiety and depression.

Understanding the NSDR Protocol

Practicing Non-Sleep Deep Rest (NSDR) isn't a one-size-fits-all deal, but there are some general guidelines to follow. The protocol typically involves setting aside dedicated time—ranging from a few minutes to an hour—to consciously slow down your mind and body. This often starts with focusing on your breath, progressively relaxing each part of your body, and then entering into a state of mindful awareness or even meditative contemplation.

For a more specific protocol to follow, check out this lesson from Jonny Miller in his concise course on tools to manage your nervous system.

The Science Behind the NSDR Protocol

The mechanism behind NSDR can be broadly attributed to activating the parasympathetic nervous system, the body's relaxation mode. When you engage in deep, mindful breathing, you stimulate the vagus nerve, which sends a signal to your brain to release neurochemicals that calm down your physiological functions. In this state, brainwave patterns like alpha and theta waves become more prominent, commonly associated with relaxation and heightened creativity, respectively. As Jonny Miller likes to say, we have a remote control for our nervous system, which is our breath and our ability to control it.

Moreover, entering an NSDR state also affects your stress hormone levels, such as cortisol, leading to its reduction. There's also evidence that practices leading to NSDR could boost levels of neurotransmitters like serotonin and dopamine, which are critical for mood regulation.

Applying the NSDR Protocol in Daily Life

  1. Time and Place: Choose a time and place where you won't be disturbed. This could be a quiet room in your house, a secluded spot in a park, or even your office, provided you can create a tranquil space.
  2. Posture: Sit or lie down in a comfortable position. The aim is to minimize physical discomfort that might distract you.
  3. Breathing: Start with deep, diaphragmatic breathing. Inhale through the nose, hold for a few seconds, and exhale through the mouth. Repeat this several times.
  4. Progressive Relaxation: Next, focus on individual parts of your body, starting from your toes and moving upwards. Mentally relax each part as you breathe deeply.
  5. Mindful Awareness: After you've relaxed your body, shift your focus inward. Observe your thoughts without judgment. If your mind wanders, gently bring your focus back to your breath or a chosen focal point, like a mantra or an object.
  6. Time Management: Start with shorter periods, maybe 5–10 minutes, and gradually work your way up. It's more about the quality of the time spent than the quantity.
  7. Daily Routine: Try to incorporate NSDR into your daily life. Make it a habit, like brushing your teeth. Over time, you might find it easier to slip into this restful state, even in stressful situations.
  8. Check-in: Once you've finished, take a moment to check-in with yourself. How do you feel? What thoughts or insights arose? This will help you understand the nuances of your NSDR experiences better.

There's also a few guided NSDR videos that you can follow along with as you learn how to apply it to yourself.

Andrew Huberman has a great 10-minute NSDR protocol that can follow along with here.

If you'd like a longer guided NSDR protocol, here is a 20+ minute option for you to try out.

And here's another guided session from Jonny Miller of Nervous System Mastery.

The potential applications of NSDR in your daily life are wide-ranging. It can be your go-to strategy for managing stress, improving focus, or even enhancing your emotional intelligence. For someone like you, who's invested in offering a holistic understanding of well-being, NSDR can be a compelling addition to your toolbox. It provides a scientific yet accessible way for people to tap into ancient wisdom traditions, thereby fostering an integrated approach to health and happiness.

The Science Behind NSDR: A Deep Dive

The science of Non-Sleep Deep Rest is an interdisciplinary field that brings together insights from neuroscience, psychology, and sleep research to unpack how this state impacts our well-being.

Neurological Explanation

  1. Brain Waves: During NSDR, the brain exhibits a specific pattern of electrical activity. Alpha and theta brain waves become more dominant. Alpha waves are generally linked with a state of relaxed alertness and enhanced creativity, while theta waves are often associated with deep relaxation and meditative states. These waves are measured using EEG (Electroencephalogram) machines and their presence suggests that the brain is functioning in a unique and optimized manner during NSDR.
  2. Neurotransmitters: Certain neurotransmitters, such as serotonin, dopamine, and GABA (Gamma-Aminobutyric Acid), are elevated during NSDR, promoting feelings of well-being and relaxation. These neurotransmitters serve as messengers in neural pathways that regulate mood and stress. For example, Galik 2012 highlighted the role of GABA in modulating noradrenergic, dopaminergic, and serotonergic neurons, which ultimately influence behavior and mood. Related to that, Chang 2003 discussed how disorders with low GABA levels, such as anxiety disorders and major depression, may benefit from treatments that augment GABAergic function.
  3. Vagus Nerve Activation: The vagus nerve plays a crucial role in activating the parasympathetic nervous system, which is essentially the body's "rest and digest" mechanism. Deep, mindful breathing during NSDR stimulates this nerve, which in turn helps to lower heart rate and blood pressure. If you're interested in learning more about the vagus nerve and the nervous system, you can also check out Polyvagal Theory.

Physical Explanation

  1. Cortisol Levels: Engaging in NSDR significantly reduces cortisol, the body’s main stress hormone, which is beneficial for several physiological processes like immune response and metabolism.
  2. Heart Rate Variability: Studies have shown an increase in heart rate variability (HRV) during NSDR. A higher HRV is often an indicator of better stress adaptability and overall cardiovascular health.
  3. Inflammatory Response: NSDR practices have been found to down-regulate the production of pro-inflammatory cytokines, thus lowering inflammation in the body. This has implications for long-term health, including the potential reduction of chronic inflammation-related diseases.

Link Between NSDR Protocol and Sleep Science

While NSDR and sleep are distinct states, they share overlapping benefits, primarily due to the activation of the parasympathetic nervous system in both. Sleep is essential for physical repair and memory consolidation, achieved through cycles of REM and non-REM sleep. NSDR, on the other hand, provides the brain and body a "mini-vacation" without delving into these deeper sleep cycles. It's almost as if NSDR allows for a lighter form of the physiological maintenance that occurs during sleep but lets you remain consciously alert.

The commonality lies in their ability to reduce stress, improve emotional well-being, and optimize various bodily functions, albeit through different mechanisms. As sleep research advances, we are learning that activities promoting NSDR can also enhance sleep quality, establishing a synergistic relationship between the two.

Andrew Huberman on Non-Sleep Deep Rest

Dr. Andrew Huberman, a neuroscientist and tenured professor at Stanford University, has become something of a public intellectual in recent years, known for translating complex neuroscience into practical, accessible wisdom. He has delved into the concept of Non-Sleep Deep Rest (NSDR) as part of his broader work on stress, sleep, and neuroplasticity.

Dr. Huberman views NSDR as an essential part of human physiology and well-being. In his perspective, NSDR serves as a state that allows for conscious relaxation, brain plasticity, and physiological recovery without needing to sleep. He emphasizes the role of certain activities—such as focused breathing and specific types of eye movement—in activating the parasympathetic nervous system, a key player in achieving an NSDR state. He often discusses this within the framework of the autonomic nervous system, making the concept more relatable to both academic and general audiences.

He spoke about how important NSDR has been for him during an interview on the Tim Ferriss podcast.

Can you do NSDR before bed?

Performing Non-Sleep Deep Rest (NSDR) before bed can be a double-edged sword, depending on your individual needs and sleep patterns. Here's the breakdown:

Why You Should Consider It

  1. Transition to Sleep: NSDR could act as a segue into sleep. By deliberately slowing down your physiological and mental states, you may find it easier to drift off.
  2. Stress Reduction: If your day has been particularly stressful, a pre-sleep NSDR session can help to lower cortisol levels and activate your parasympathetic nervous system, preparing your body for restorative sleep.
  3. Mindfulness Benefits: Engaging in mindful relaxation before bed could potentially improve the quality of your sleep by helping you let go of the day's worries and anxieties.

Why You Might Want to Skip It

  1. Increased Alertness: Some people find that engaging in mindfulness practices can make them more alert, which might not be ideal if you’re trying to fall asleep immediately afterward.
  2. Potential for Rumination: If you're new to NSDR or mindfulness practices, you may inadvertently start ruminating on stressful or negative thoughts, which could make falling asleep more difficult.
  3. Timing: Depending on how long you engage in NSDR, you might end up cutting into valuable sleep time, especially if you're someone who struggles with sleep duration.

The Middle Ground

You could opt for a shorter NSDR session or choose techniques specifically designed to promote sleep, like progressive muscle relaxation or certain types of deep-breathing exercises. The key is to pay attention to how your body responds. If you find that a pre-bed NSDR session leaves you feeling calm, refreshed, and ready for sleep, then it’s likely a good option for you. Conversely, if you find it activating or stressful, you might be better off practicing NSDR at a different time of day.

How long does NSDR take? 

The duration required to achieve a state of Non-Sleep Deep Rest can vary based on several factors, including your familiarity with mindfulness practices, your current emotional state, and even the specific technique you're using. However, here's a general guide:

Typical Duration

  • Short Sessions: Some people find that as little as 5-10 minutes can be effective for a quick mental reset. These short bursts may be all you need for a brief respite from stress.
  • Standard Sessions: For a deeper experience, 20-30 minutes is often recommended. This duration is long enough to engage the parasympathetic nervous system substantially, promoting a noticeable sense of relaxation and calm.
  • Extended Sessions: In certain contexts—like guided retreats or specialized therapeutic settings—NSDR can last an hour or more. These extended periods may offer more profound benefits, but they also require a greater time commitment and a higher level of skill in maintaining focus.

Flexibility is Key

NSDR is generally quite adaptable. You can tailor the length of your sessions to fit your schedule and needs. Whether you're squeezing in a quick session during a work break or dedicating a longer period for deep relaxation, the key is consistency and regularity more than the length per se.

A Note on Adaptation

As you become more adept at entering a state of NSDR, you may find that you can achieve the same benefits in less time. Experienced meditators, for example, often report that they can enter a deeply relaxed state more quickly than novices.

Is Yoga Nidra the same as NSDR? 

Yoga Nidra and Non-Sleep Deep Rest share similarities, but they're not identical. They both aim to induce a state of deep relaxation without falling asleep, and both can activate the parasympathetic nervous system. However, there are nuanced differences.

Yoga Nidra

Yoga Nidra, sometimes called "yogic sleep," is a specific guided meditation practice that has its roots in the ancient Indian tradition of yoga. The practice is structured and usually involves lying down in a comfortable position and listening to a set of guided instructions. It aims to create a state of conscious relaxation, where you hover between waking and sleeping. The practice often involves body scans, breath awareness, and visualization exercises.


NSDR, on the other hand, is a broader category that can include a variety of practices aimed at achieving deep rest without sleep. These might include meditation, focused breathing exercises, and even some modern biofeedback techniques. Unlike Yoga Nidra, NSDR is not tied to a particular cultural or spiritual tradition, and the practices that fall under its umbrella can be more flexible and varied.

Key Differences

  • Structure and Flexibility: Yoga Nidra typically follows a particular structure and set of guidelines, whereas NSDR can be more flexible in terms of the techniques and approaches used.
  • Cultural Roots: Yoga Nidra has a historical and cultural context rooted in Indian spiritual traditions. NSDR is more of a modern, secular term that can encompass practices from various cultural and scientific backgrounds.
  • Guidance: Yoga Nidra is often done with the help of a guide or a recorded voice providing step-by-step instructions. NSDR might or might not involve guidance and can often be self-directed.
  • Focus and Intention: Yoga Nidra often includes elements of visualization and intention-setting (Sankalpa in Sanskrit), making it more than just a relaxation exercise. NSDR might not necessarily include these elements, depending on the specific practice you're using.

Other important figures related to NSDR

The concept of NSDR has been explored by various experts across different fields, although the terminology might not always be consistent. If you want to explore the role of breathwork and other intentional relaxation techniques, here are some key figures to check out:

  • Dr. Herbert Benson: Known for his work on the "Relaxation Response," a state akin to NSDR, Dr. Benson focuses on how techniques like meditation and controlled breathing can induce a state of deep relaxation. His work has lent scientific credibility to the idea that one can achieve substantial physiological benefits without sleep.
  • Jon Kabat-Zinn: The creator of Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction (MBSR) speaks about states of conscious rest as vital for stress management and emotional well-being. Though he doesn't necessarily use the term NSDR, the mindfulness states he teaches have significant overlap with NSDR concepts.
  • Sadhguru: An Indian yogi and spiritual author, Sadhguru discusses similar states to NSDR within the context of yogic practices. He often describes these states as a kind of "wakeful rest" that rejuvenates the body and mind.
  • Thich Nhat Hanh: While not using the term NSDR, the Vietnamese Zen master talks about the concept of "resting" in the present moment as a form of deep relaxation that can be just as rejuvenating as sleep.
  • Dr. Richard Davidson: A neuroscientist focused on emotions and the brain, Dr. Davidson's work often centers on states of mental rest and their impact on well-being. He's talked about the plasticity of the brain and how states similar to NSDR can contribute to emotional resilience.
  • Jonny Miller: He is an entrepreneur, teacher, podcast host, and an expert in nervous system management for high-performers such as entrepreneurs, executives, and busy professionals. His journey toward nervous system mastery stemmed from his personal experience as an entrepreneur, and also from a tragic loss in his life, which led him to create a course on Nervous System Mastery.