How Daylight Saving Time Affects Mental Health

Turning the clocks an hour may exacerbate pre-existing conditions like depression or anxiety.

Adjusting the clocks twice a year in observance of daylight saving time (DST) can have various health consequences, mostly in the spring, due to losing an hour of sleep. However, the fall shift back to standard time may increase depression and affect your mental 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, told Health.

About a quarter of the world's population adjust their clocks to observe daylight savings. Although DST doesn't necessarily cause mental health conditions, such as depression or substance abuse, some evidence suggests it may exacerbate them.

Therefore, if you have a pre-existing mental health condition or are more susceptible to anxiety or depression, knowing how DST may impact you may be helpful. Here are ways to take precautionary measures to care for your mental health.

Asian senior man has an insomnia or sleepless on bed at home due to stress, nervous and concern

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Daylight Savings and Depression

Research has linked the transition into and out of DST to sleep disruption, mood disturbances, and suicide. For example, a study published in 2017 in Epidemiology found that the transition from DST to standard time increased the number of hospital visits for depression by 11%. The researchers concluded that distress about an earlier sunset than normal might worsen depression.

"Especially for individuals susceptible to being anxious or depressed, this change in time can trigger an episode of depression or anxiety," explained Dr. Merrill.

The time switch can exacerbate or increase seasonal affective disorder (SAD). SAD is a type of depression that occurs seasonally and sometimes coincides with days becoming shorter than before.

Why Changing the Clock Affects Mental Health

While no one knows exactly why transitioning from DST to standard time increases depression and substance abuse, there are a few theories. 

Sleep Schedules Get Disrupted

The change in time disrupts circadian rhythms, also known as the body's essential functions that run on a 24-hour cycle.

The springing forward affects your circadian rhythms more than falling back does. However, any disruption may cause health problems, Joseph Takahashi, PhD, chair of the department of neuroscience at UT Southwestern Medical Center, told 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 significantly impact mood or increase anxiety, said Dr. Merrill.

Less Exposure to Sunlight

Additionally, setting the clocks back an hour causes the sun to set earlier. Since many people in the United States operate on a 9 to 5 kind of daily schedule, the sun will already be set and then slipping past the horizon by the time they head home.

"When we have less exposure to sunlight, our moods tend to lower," said Dr. Merrill.

The loss of afternoon sunlight decreases the time people spend outdoors, added Dr. Merrill. Some evidence suggests that spending more time outside positively affects the brain. In contrast, less time outside may make "the mood-regulating centers in the brain decrease in size and function," according to Dr. Merrill.

Plus, when people spend most of their day inside, they tend to be more sedentary, which can increase depression and anxiety, said Dr. Merrill.

According to a poll by AP-NORC, in 2019, 71% of people in the United States reported that they want to end the practice of shifting the time.

How To Boost Your Mood During the Time Change

In March, you can prepare by adjusting your sleep schedule gradually a few days before the time change.

However, there are fewer ways to prepare your body for waking up later as standard time resumes in the fall. So, the National Alliance on Mental Illness recommends that people go to bed and wake up at their usual time. Just be sure to draw your blinds since the sun will rise earlier.

There are ways you can lessen the mental health impact of having less sun in the evening, said Dr. Merrill. That means adjusting your daily schedule or implementing the following healthy coping strategies.

Spend Mornings Outside

To compensate for the loss of light in the evening, take a walk first thing in the morning, recommended Dr. Merrill. 

"There is evidence that more light exposure, especially in the morning, can alleviate symptoms of SAD," added Takahashi.

Try 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 said. Light boxes tend to be most effective when used in the morning.

Stay Physically Active

Research has found that regular exercise has as much of an effect on mood as antidepressants. So, be extra diligent about daily movement. 

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) recommends 150 minutes of moderate-intensity physical activity weekly, such as 30 minutes of brisk walking five days a week. The CDC also advises two days of muscle-strengthening activity.

If your mental health impacts your quality of life, talk to a healthcare provider 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).

Try to be gentle with yourself as you adjust to the time change.

"We need to be kind to ourselves and each other since we may not feel as we usually do," said Dr. Merrill. "It's important to have self-compassion during this tough time of year."

A Quick Review

Shifting the clocks for DST can increase or exacerbate existing mental health conditions, such as depression or anxiety.

Getting exercise, spending time outside in the morning, and light therapy can be helpful strategies during the fall and winter. Try adjusting your sleep schedule gradually in March to prepare for springing ahead.

If you notice a shift in your mental health, particularly if it affects your quality of life, always contact a healthcare provider.

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