Time Change Disruption—and Countermeasures

Originally published in:
Michael Terman, PhD

Time Change Disruption—and Countermeasures

Your cell phone clock resets itself…but what about your inner clock?


It’s that time of year again. The clock-face cartoons with arrows and phantom hands. Talking-head newscasters reminding us to “spring ahead, fall behind.” The scramble around the house to reset all the clocks and timers.

And all too often, the alarm clock you forgot to change waking you up an hour early. (But see the end of our post: there’s some sense to forgetting!)

Most of us accept the autumn switch out of Daylight Saving Time with only an occasional grumble. We may even be happy to think that we have mysteriously “gained” an extra hour. But it can take up to a week for our bodies to adjust to the change. And for some people the transition is quite jarring.

The ritual of changing the clocks near the start of spring and again in the fall is only about a hundred years old. It started as an attempt to save on coal and electricity by taking a daylight hour away from the early summer morning, when most people were still asleep, and tacking it onto the evening, when most people were still up.

We wish Standard Time would last all year long, and get us out of this semiannual mess!

In early morning, the inner clock reacts to light exposure by maintaining a daily cycle that matches when we go to bed and wake up. With winter’s later sunrise, the sleep-wake signals start running late, but work and class schedules stay the same year-around. We’re forced to wake up earlier than the inner clock expects. This mismatch between sleep timing and light exposure is a formula for depression, whether relatively mild (“winter blues”) or full-blown (Seasonal Affective Disorder, SAD).

Still, we’re lucky it’s fall and not spring. The circadian clock finds it easier to adapt to falling back into Standard Time. Most people’s normal clock cycle is longer than twenty-four hours, perhaps twenty-four hours and twenty minutes. If they leave their blinds down and try to catch an extra hour’s sleep on the Sunday morning of the time change, their inner clocks will naturally drift toward being in sync with the change. That is, if you’re lucky.

If the change to Standard Time hits you hard, ease your inner clock into it. If you’re waking up at 7 AM Daylight Saving Time, that corresponds to 6 AM Standard Time (ugh!). So on Saturday night, right before the change, set your alarm to 6:10 AM Standard Time, and your clock will be happy. Over the days that follow, set your alarm 10 minutes later each day — 6:20…6:30… — and in less than a week you’ll be in sync with 7 AM Standard Time.

But what if the negative effects of the time change continue? What if you find yourself falling into the “winter blues,” even before winter sets in for real? In that case, you may find bright light therapy helpful, as described in our new paperback, Reset Your Inner Clock.  At a particular time in the morning (depending on your individual chronotype), you sit facing a therapeutic light box for between fifteen minutes and an hour — on average 30 minutes — usually occupied with a laptop or book. The light therapy signals your inner clock that daytime has begun, and shifts it into sync with the external day/night cycle.

And as for your chronotype? This term describes a person’s habitual activity-rest cycle. Some — the hummingbirds — stay smoothly in sync with the day/night cycle of the outside world. Others are larks. They wake up early, before most people’s alarms go off, and may start to fizzle by evening. Then there are the owls, who find waking up in time for work or school a constant struggle. Even when they do manage to get out, the brain fog may not lift for a few more hours. Most of us have a pretty good idea which group we belong to, but to find out in more detail, you can take the free online quiz called the Morningness-Eveningness Questionnaire (AutoMEQ) offered by the Center for Environmental Therapeutics.