Social jet lag: Have you had too much of a good thing?

Kathryn Wheeler
By Kathryn Wheeler,
updated on Dec 29, 2023

Social jet lag: Have you had too much of a good thing?

Learn more about the phenomenon that could be putting a dent in your wellbeing this social season

You’ve heard of regular jet lag, but throwing off our sleep and wake routines in order to keep up with what’s going on around us, could result in the effect termed ‘social jet lag’. Coined by Till Roenneberg, professor of chronobiology at Ludwig-Maximilian University in Munich, social jet lag occurs when we go to bed later and wake up later on our days off, as compared to work days. Roenneberg believes that, just like normal jet lag, social jet lag is caused by jumping between two timezones: one dictated by our internal body clocks, and the other dictated by work and social obligations. And, unfortunately, it can have an adverse affect on our health.

According to the study at Ludwig-Maximilian University, social jet lag is a condition that is associated with weight gain, reduced mental performance, and chronic illness. Additionally, just like regular jet lag, social jet lag can make falling asleep more difficult, as well as leave you feeling overly tired and groggy. The same study estimates that around two-thirds of us experience at least one hour of social jet lag a week, and a third experience two hours or more. And avoiding it isn’t all that easy.

For many, days off are a time to loosen up a bit. Those rigid routines that can keep us on track during the week are now lifted, and with them can come the temptation to spend a couple more hours in bed in the morning. Add on to that the social get-togethers that go on a little later than on work days, and the routine is out the window.

This is all particularly prevalent during the height of the social season. Parties, get-togethers, celebrations, and quick pop-ins that turn out not to be so quick. Socialising and spending time with others can be a total joy, but so can kicking back and taking it easy. These things can help us to decompress from our day-to-day lives, address those niggling aspects of stress, and bring fun and laughter to our lives. But, is it possible to have too much of a good thing?

We all have the ability to weigh up whether or not pushing back our bedtime in order to enjoy days off for a little longer is worth it or not – but if you are finding that doing so is having an adverse effect on your overall wellbeing, we have some suggestions for you to try.

Dr Jana Jenkin’s tips for saying ‘no’

. Become aware of your potential unhelpful beliefs, such as: “Saying ‘no’ is rude, selfish, unkind, and I will no longer be liked by X.” These beliefs are likely to determine your behaviour, in other words, you attend a social event despite not wanting to go.

. Establish a more helpful belief such as: “Saying no is my human right. Others tend to respect ‘no’. My needs are as important as other people’s needs.”

. It is helpful to keep your explanation of ‘no’ brief – avoid long justifications. Do not be overly apologetic.

. Be polite. Saying something like: “Thank you for asking, but I am feeling exhausted and would benefit from a quiet night and self-care tonight.”

. Speak slowly with warmth, otherwise ‘no’ may sound abrupt to others.

. Be honest about your feelings and always tell the truth, otherwise your dishonest justification may backfire, or you may feel guilty for telling white lies.

. Remember that when you say ‘no’ you are just refusing a request, not rejecting the person who invites you to a social event.

There’s nothing wrong with prioritising sleep

Firstly, it’s important to understand that prioritising your health is not a selfish thing to do, in fact, you can only be there for others once you have taken steps to take care of yourself first. And sleep is a hugely important part of our overall health.

In fact, data presented by research assistant at the University of Arizona College of Medicine, Sierra Forbush, suggests that for every hour of social jet lag a person experienced each week, they had an 11% increase in the likelihood of having cardiovascular disease. What’s more, various studies have found links between insufficient sleep and everything from chronic illnesses to decreased immune function, alcohol dependency, and even life expectancy.

While understanding how important sleep is for your health is one thing, adapting your lifestyle around it is a whole other challenge. So, if you need help communicating this to others, setting boundaries is where you’ll want to start.

Setting healthy boundaries

“Healthy boundaries in relationships are paramount to prevent social jet lag. However saying ‘no’ can be truly difficult for many people,” says Dr Jana Jenkins, a clinical psychologist. “Some people may feel that they are letting others down, they fear that they might not be invited to a social event in the future, or they may feel worried about missing out.

“By and large, those who struggle with ‘no’ present as people-pleasers, or having the fear of judgement from others, which may be linked to low self-esteem. However, in my experience, others tend to respect ‘no’. It is up to all of us to feel entitled to say ‘no’ even when we might feel under pressure from others.”

You may be having these conversations with friends, but it may also be relevant in relationships – perhaps your partner enjoys a late-night movie marathon, for example. Either way, coming to a compromise is a good way of tackling the temptation to stay up.

For example, Dr Jenkins recommends asking yourself whether the event is meaningful for you. If it is, is there a compromise to be made? Could you, for example, say yes to something on a Saturday on the condition that Sunday is a restful day? Additionally, she recommends keeping a social calendar, so that you can feel in charge of all your commitments, and make decisions about what you have the energy to do, and what you would rather pass on.

Sleep on it

It’s important to clarify that the odd lie-in really isn’t the end of the world – the key, as with everything, is balance. Our days off are precious, as is rest, as is time with loved ones, and down-time for making memories. But if social jet lag and its effects resonate with you, it could lead you to make changes that make a real difference to your health.

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