When most of us think about Daylight Savings Time (DST), we think of losing or gaining sleep and how that will affect our plans. Every year, you experience the same irritation of, “Ugh, I have to go through my whole home to change the time on the oven, microwave, all the wall clocks, and my wristwatch” (if you still wear one that doesn’t change on its own). And don’t forget the one in your car – if you can even remember how you changed it last time.
But the literal change of time we have to make to our clocks and losing/gaining an hour of sleep seems unimportant when we look at how DST affects our mental health.
How the light outside affects us
We know that sunny days can make us feel happy, but do we really know how much light and darkness influence us?
Light is the most powerful manager of our internal clock or circadian rhythm. So when the clocks on our phones shift forward, morning sunlight is reduced, making it harder to wake up. At the same time, evening light increases, making it harder to fall asleep.
With permanent DST, on the other hand, the clock would be shifted an hour forward even in the winter, which would mean more time in the dark in the mornings. That’s at odds with our intrinsic circadian rhythm.
What DST does to us mentally
According to this article, lack of sunlight suppresses the production of two essential hormones: sleep-inducing melatonin and the “happy chemical” serotonin, which plays a key role in mood balance. In other words, we’re more likely to be grumpy and tired (but unable to fall asleep) in the days following daylight saving time.
How DST affects our mental health
Studies show that anxiety and suicidal thoughts seem to rise around time change. Although DST doesn’t cause mental health problems, it can worsen them. Also, less sunlight can lead to feelings of apathy and depression.
In addition, when DST ends, the shift to shorter days with fewer hours of sunlight can trigger seasonal affective disorder (SAD) — a condition that affects 1.6 billion people worldwide.
As if that were not enough, there is Reverse SAD as well, where people get the summer blues instead of the winter blue.. While rare, it affects a tenth of all SAD sufferers. Although there isn’t complete agreement on the exact cause of reverse SAD, it has been associated with extra exposure to sunlight, high temperatures, and even partying, since we tend to stay up later when the days get longer.
The connection between DST and depression
In a Danish study published in 2017, researchers found a direct relationship between hospital admissions for depression and DST. Not only were admissions highest in the winter, but they also peaked right after the time change.
This study said that hospitals reported addressing 11% more depressive symptoms right after the fall time change. However, the time change in the spring did not result in a similar result, supporting the notion that sunlight does our minds and bodies good.
People who already know they have seasonal depression are much more susceptible to disturbances in their internal clock. So, it makes sense that “fall back” can affect them even further.
Going forward (no pun intended)
A permanent standard time in the United States would be the best-case scenario, with no more springing ahead and falling back. Arizona and Hawaii are already enacting this.
Until that happens, if you have a pre-existing mental disorder or are more prone to seasonal depression, you should know how time change can impact you and what you can do to better adjust to it.
1. Go outside – Try going for a walk first thing in the morning to enjoy that bright natural light. There is evidence that more light exposure, especially in the morning, can ease symptoms of SAD.
2. Light therapy – If morning walks are not possible for you, you may want to try a lightbox. A light therapy box simulates the effects of natural light, causing a chemical change in the brain that lifts your mood.
3. Stay active – Exercise is a great way to improve our mood and energy levels. When we exercise, our bodies release more mood-boosting hormones, which help us fight depression.