Spring forward and mental health

Date: 22nd March 2023

Spring forward? A Priory psychotherapist explains how putting clocks forward an hour impacts mental health

  • Changes in your circadian rhythm can create sleep difficulties, says Dee Johnson
  • She compares daylight saving time to jetlag for some, and says good sleep hygiene is vital

 While Seasonal Affective Disorder (so-called SAD syndrome) is understood, the impact on mental health of setting clocks to go forward an hour in the spring is less well discussed. However, Priory psychotherapist Dee Johnson says the time change can affect people’s moods and behaviour, in some cases quite markedly.

“When our circadian rhythm gets disrupted, this affects the release of hormones including melatonin, a key hormone for a healthy sleep cycle,” she says. “It can also affect our body temperature and our relationship with food (such as cravings and the need to eat more sugar and fat-based foods).”

So if our sleep pattern goes awry after the clocks go forward, it can put lots of things out of whack.

“A lack of sleep is a contributor to anxiety, depression, inability to concentrate, and feeling more prone to anger and intolerance - which in turn can lead to other issues such as low self-worth, a sense of hopelessness and anhedonia,” Dee says. “And when we suffer such symptoms, we are at much greater risk of developing long-term harmful behaviours to try and ‘deal’ with them, or numb them. So it can be a bit more serious than feeling slightly groggy when the clock change occurs. It only takes a minor disruption to knock out the circadian rhythm, so if you are late to bed, the early light will naturally wake you, meaning you have had less sleep and therefore less essential stages of your sleeping pattern. The REM (Rapid Eye Movement) stage of sleep is key for processing thoughts, information and memories, and poor REM can cause poor emotional and behavioural responses when awake.”

So how long does it take our circadian rhythm to adjust?

“It normally takes a few days to adjust,” she says, “but the ‘spring forward’ time of year tends to be a bit harder and takes a little longer than when we gain an hour. If you already suffer with a sleep disorder, or sleep-disturbing mental health issues - such as anxiety and depression - it can take even longer and the disruption is more visceral.

“As individuals, we have to work out what suits our body clocks, but the general guidance for this time of year is to slightly shift your bed time, if you can, in the weeks running up to the clocks changing; say, go to bed 15 minutes sooner, then up to 30 minutes sooner. “Having blackout curtains or eye masks can really help. The usual sleep hygiene tips apply too, so cut out alcohol as a night cap (it’s a myth that it aids healthy sleep), try and leave three hours after a big meal before going to bed, and of course screen time and the exposure to light really confuses our internal clocks. The occasional night of poor sleep will not cause many issues but if it becomes prolonged, then it is best to seek professional help from your GP or a therapist.”

Would it be better for us to have a constant time instead of clocks changing twice a year?

“Possibly, because although we are used to the clocks changing, it still throws us off kilter twice a year. It depends on your personal attitude towards it. Some love the extra hour of daylight and we do feel better commuting in daylight, and it’s safer too, plus the positive effects of having longer days means we can socialise and do activities for longer, which is a massive mental health bonus. For some, that extra hour in bed in the winter and the natural tendency to want to hunker down is a positive experience too. We do, however, see more patients with depression in the winter months, and the effects of isolation always increase.”

A US study found that the average American loses 40 minutes of sleep the night after the clocks go forward, incurring a sleep debt that does not appear to be recovered when the clocks go back in the autumn. Long-term research also suggests that twice-yearly clock changes can worsen some mental health problems such as bipolar, depression and anxiety.

In the UK, daylight saving will start at 1am on Sunday March 26 in 2023 and clocks go back by one hour on Sunday October 29. Although this change has no effect on the length of each day, sunrise and sunset each appear an hour later in the summertime. The idea of summer time or daylight saving time was mentioned in 1784 by Benjamin Franklin, the American statesman. In 1916, Germany became the first country to adopt it and the UK followed, after a petition by British builder William Willett – the great-great grandfather of Coldplay frontman Chris Martin. But the benefits of it have been debated ever since. Currently around 70 countries worldwide adopt some form of daylight saving.



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About Priory and MEDIAN

Priory is the UK’s leading independent provider of mental health services. We treat more than 70 conditions, including depression, anxiety, addictions and eating disorders, as well as children’s mental health, across our nationwide network of sites. We also support autistic adults and adults with a learning disability, Prader-Willi Syndrome and brain injuries, as well as older people, within our specialist residential care and supported living facilities – helping as many people as possible to live their lives.

Priory is part of the MEDIAN Group, one of Europe’s leading providers of high quality mental health and rehabilitation services. The MEDIAN Group comprises 290 facilities with 5,000 beds caring for 28,000 people in the UK, 120 facilities with 20,000 beds caring for around 250,000 patients in Germany, and 15 facilities with 2,000 beds caring for 13,000 people in Spain, with more than 29,000 employees overall.

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