Fall is a bit of a drag for adults. Halloween has lost its magic and Thanksgiving really just means we will have to apologize for our subpar side dishes. The one highlight of a dreary, unwelcome season is the fall time change. After waiting a year, we finally get to gain a precious hour of sleep. And, especially as we age, many, many of us love our sleep.
So, Sunday morning, November 7th, if you sleep in until 9 am, you will be crawling out of bed at what was 10 am the week before. Which also means that you won’t have to lie to the world about how long you linger in the covers on the weekend, even though the kids have typically been watching cartoons and eating handfuls of Cocoa Puffs since 6 am.
Of course, our rational minds tell us that we’re really gaining nothing–because if we’re going to bed at the same time we’re accustomed to, we’re getting exactly the same amount of sleep we got before. But we don’t care about our rational minds; our entire adult lives, we have been perfectly fine convincing ourselves that we are sneaking in an extra hour. When the fall time change hits, we’re going to “fall back” and crush it.
Unfortunately, we are a teensy bit deluded. Not only did we not really ”gain an hour” (I’m sorry to burst your bubble), the fall time change is going to mess with our circadian rhythm, and that’s not good for anybody. Ellen Wermter, registered nurse and spokesperson for the Better Sleep Council, lays it out: “Basically, any time you are in a routine and that routine is disrupted it is going to take time for your body to adjust. During that adjustment period our mental and physical performance may be impaired…The perturbation to our rhythm is problematic.”
Whether we’re “falling back” or “springing forward,” the time shifts have definite effects, many of them negative. After the spring transition each year, heart attacks begin to rise. And, within the first few days, car accidents are up about 6%. The challenges of fall’s return to standard time can overlap with spring’s (like the 8% higher stroke incidence)–but the fall time change presents its own unique set of problems, many having to do with mental health.
It’s no surprise that the lack of sunlight that coincides with the fall time change has an effect on mood, since the sun’s vitamin D goes a long way toward keeping depression at bay. Those already experiencing depression might dip lower without access to this natural, and much-needed, mental health resource. Emily Deans, M.D.and evolutionary psychologist writes, “One hour of change in the timing of the day (that, in the fall, is often looked upon favorably as ‘that extra hour of sleep’) theoretically has its most debilitating consequences for those with depressive disorders.” November 7 will cue these populations to steel themselves for what may lie ahead.
However, what many don’t realize is that everyone risks mood destabilization with the fall time change– even those without pre-existing mental health issues. A 2017 study conducted by Bertel T Hansen et al shows that the fall time change, specifically, increased hospitalizations for depressive episodes by 11%, and this hike dissipated roughly 10 weeks after onset. The study concludes that “Distress associated with the sudden advancement of sunset, marking the coming of a long period of short days, may explain this finding.” Deans concurs: The fall time change “acts as one more stressor to the stress in our modern daily schedules.” And if you count the masses that Daylight Saving Time affects (70 countries employ it!), the number of people at risk for mood flux is hefty.
However, though the initial shock to your body might be disruptive, there are a few things you can do to offset the jolt:
Back in the day, I would panic at the end of summer when I realized that I was going to start having to get up at 5:30 am instead of my coveted 10 am. I would do a sort of cold turkey and shave off those 4.5 hours in one lump the day before school started. Wermter suggests a gradual, less-jarring transition. Starting around November 1, she says, you should “aim for a 10-15 minute difference per day until you have made up the hour.”
Your sunlight window may be smaller, but that doesn’t mean you can’t take advantage of it. Obviously, if the lack of sunshine is going to have a deleterious effect on mental health, the addition of some rays is going to give your mood a boost.
Try some light therapy.
Many people I know treat the light box like it’s new-age-y hoodoo. But even the trusted Mayo Clinic notes the potential benefit: “A light therapy box mimics outdoor light. Researchers believe this type of light causes a chemical change in the brain that lifts your mood….”
The Cleveland Clinic suggests “sticking with your usual schedule and practicing a nighttime ritual to help your body and brain adjust to the time change. This way, even if you can’t ignore the event altogether, at least you’ll feel better prepared to face the new, shifted day.” A routine is one way to prepare your body for sleep–and we definitely want to keep good sleep habits in place.
Reassess your daily activities.
I know this sounds like it contradicts the “stay consistent” advice. But if your schedule revolves around loafing on the couch most of the day and enjoying a plate of leftover fettucini and turkey drumsticks at midnight, you might want to incorporate a few changes. Wermter advises: “Exercise is often overlooked as a way to improve sleep, but the benefits of sleep quality are massive–so don’t skip the workout, avoid heavy meals and alcohol late in the day stay off electronics too late in the day.”
Take a short catnap.
As a seasoned napper, I will not have a problem following the advice of “The Old Farmer’s Almanac.” “Some folks may disagree,” says contributor Catherine Boeckmann, “but if you’re starting to stack up sleepless hours, it’s safer and healthier for your body to give in to a short nap than to continue without sleep.”
Author and Psychology Today contributor Deborah Serani PsyD suggests that antidepressants might be an option for some so that they can “move through the seasonal depression with greater ease.” I should add that, in my case, a slight tweak to my-already-in-place med regimen is generally a very, very good idea. (Typically, my doctor and I increase my dose by a few milligrams about two weeks before the fall time change.)
Since Daylight Saving Time was introduced in the U.S. over 100 years ago, and since it is government-mandated these days, it is most likely not going anywhere too soon. (Unfortunately, it doesn’t matter that 63% of us oppose it.) Our best bet is to investigate what works to make the fall time change workable for us–and then hunker down and plow through.
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