On Sunday, about a quarter of the world's population will set their clocks back an hour in observance of daylight saving time (DST). While many may rejoice at the extra hour of sleep, others are dreading the time change.
In fact, about 71% of Americans want to end DST, according to a poll conducted by AP-NORC in 2019, and for good reason.
Research indicates that changing our clocks twice a year can have a variety of health consequences, which mostly occur in the spring due to losing an hour of sleep. However, changing clocks in the fall is associated with a decline in mental health, experts tell Health.
"There seems to be more depression, anxiety, and even suicidal thoughts around the time the clock changes both in March and in the fall," David Merrill, MD, an adult and geriatric psychiatrist and Director of the Pacific Brain Health Center at the Pacific Neuroscience Institute, tells Health.
Though DST doesn't necessarily cause mental health conditions, like depression or substance abuse, research suggests it may exacerbate them. Therefore, if you have a pre-existing mental health condition or are more susceptible to anxiety or depression, it's worth knowing how DST may impact you—that way you can take precautionary measures to care for your mental health.
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The ways Daylight Saving Time takes a toll on mental health
Both the transition into and out of DST has been associated with sleep disruption, mood disturbances, and suicide, according to a statement made by the American Academy of Sleep Medicine.
For example, a 2017 study published in Epidemiology analyzing over 185,000 hospital contacts for depression found that the transition from DST to standard time increased the number of hospital visits for depression by 11%. The study concluded this may be due to distress about an earlier sunset.
"Especially for individuals susceptible to being anxious or depressed, this change in time can trigger an episode of depression or anxiety," Dr. Merrill says, who also points out the time switch can exacerbate or increase incidences of seasonal affective disorder (SAD). SAD is a type of depression that occurs seasonally, according to the National Institute of Mental Health, and sometimes coincides with days becoming shorter.
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Why falling back an hour hinders mental health
While no one knows exactly why transitioning from DST to standard time increases incidences of depression and substance abuse, there are a few theories.
One reason could be the change in time disrupts circadian rhythms, aka the body's essential functions that run on a 24-hour cycle. Circadian rhythms are affected more by the springing forward than falling back, but any disruption can cause health problems, Joseph Takahashi, PhD, chair of the department of neuroscience at UTSouthwestern Medical Center, tells Health.
One of the most well-known circadian rhythms is our sleep-wake cycle, which influences when we feel tired, fall asleep, and wake up. Even just a one-hour disruption in our sleep schedule can have a significant impact on mood or increase anxiety, Dr. Merrill says.
Additionally, setting our clocks back an hour causes the sun to set earlier. Since most Americans operate on a 9-to-5 kind of daily schedule, this means the sun will already be setting and then slipping past the horizon by the time they clock out of the office or head home from school.
"When we have less exposure to sunlight, our moods tend to lower," Dr. Merrill says.
He believes this may be because the loss of afternoon sunlight decreases the time people spend outdoors. According to Dr. Merrill, research indicates less time outside makes "…the mood regulating centers in the brain decrease in size and function."
Plus, when people spend most of their day inside, they tend to be more sedentary, which can increase depression and anxiety, Dr. Merrill says.
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How to boost your mood when Daylight Saving Time ends and standard time resumes
Normally in the springtime, you can prepare for the time change by adjusting your sleep schedule a few days before. However, because there are few ways to prepare your body for waking up later, the National Alliance on Mental Illness recommends people go to bed and wake up at their usual time—just be sure to draw your blinds since the sun will rise earlier.
However, there are ways you can lessen the mental health impact of having less sun in the evening, Dr. Merrill says. This means adjusting your daily schedule or implementing healthy coping strategies like:
- Spending mornings outside. To compensate for the loss of light in the evening, Dr. Merrill recommends taking a walk first thing in the morning. "There is evidence that more light exposure, especially in the morning, can alleviate symptoms of SAD," Takahashi says.
- Trying light therapy. If you're unable to wake up earlier, you may want to purchase a light box, which is a common treatment option for SAD, Dr. Merrill says. Research indicates light boxes are most effective when used in the morning.
- Staying physically active. Studies have found regular exercise has as much of an effect on mood as antidepressants, Dr. Merrill says. Therefore, be extra diligent about daily movement. The CDC recommends 150 minutes of weekly aerobic active, or 30 minutes of exercise five times a week.
However, if your mental health is impacting your quality of life, talk to your doctor, who can walk you through potential treatment options. You can also call the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration's 24/7 helpline at 1-800-662-HELP (4357).
Don't be too hard on yourself if you still feel down and dreary even after attempting to adjust to the time change. "We need to be kind to ourselves and each other since we may not feel as we usually do. It's important to have self-compassion during this tough time of year," Dr. Merrill says.
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