By Dr Nicola Cann, Educational Psychologist & Guest Contributor
With the summer just around the corner for many of us, and borders opening up around the world, lots of us will be planning long haul flights to exotic destinations. But how many of us have been floored on arrival at a fabulous holiday destination by jet lag? As someone who loves to get straight out exploring as soon as I arrive in a new destination, jet lag can be so frustrating. But don’t despair. Psychology can save the day! Over the years I’ve been travelling I’ve learned ways that psychology can help us to beat the dreaded jet lag.
Isn’t Jet Lag Just Travel Fatigue?
Nope! Jet lag happens when we arrive in a new destination with a time zone that is out of sync with our body clocks. This misalignment happens when we zip across time zones too fast for our bodies to adjust naturally, leaving our internal drive for sleep and wakefulness desynchronised from those of the new destination.
Many of us will be familiar with the main symptoms of jet lag, including difficulties getting to sleep and staying asleep, or waking up unsociably early. On my recent trip back to the UK from Singapore I woke at 5am for the first three days I was back. In the UK winter that’s three hours before it even gets light. In addition to these changes in sleep patterns you might also have experienced any or all of the following common symptoms:
- Daytime tiredness and fatigue
- Poor performance on mental and physical tasks
- Poor concentration
- Loss of appetite
These symptoms can be similar to those experienced with travel fatigue, which is caused by the physical demands of travel e.g. disrupted sleep, dehydration, stress of catching a plane etc. The reasons we can differentiate between travel fatigue and jet lag are that fatigue is not necessarily associated with shifts in time zones and it abates once you are rested, whereas jet lag symptoms tend to last for as long as it takes for the body clock to adjust to the new time zone.
Where Does the Psychology Come In?
Whilst the physiological symptoms of jet lag have been well defined in the research, less well publicised are the psychological components, which are considerable. The research suggests that subjective perceptions of jet lag often do not match up with objectively measured symptoms, and that there is lots of variation in how negatively individuals perceive the impact of their jet lag symptoms. There is also evidence to suggest that people’s perceptions of their own jet lag can be more dependent on previous experiences of jet lag, and advice received from figures of authority, than on what they are actually physically experiencing.
The psychological concepts of illness cognitions can help us to understand this mismatch between physical symptoms and our experience of them. Illness cognitions describe our beliefs and expectations about our health and susceptibility to illness, and recently research has shown that illness cognitions apply to jet lag. Pessimistic illness cognitions lead us to see jet lag as less controllable, and more severe. People with these expectations minimise self-management behaviours, because what would be the point if it’s inevitable anyway? But if we are more aware of the ways we can minimise jet lag, we feel more control, and are then more likely to see jet lag as modifiable if we use the right strategies. This in turn makes people more likely to implement counter-measures to alleviate jet lag.
But what does this all mean for beating jet lag? Well the research would suggest that just knowing about your own illness cognitions, and about evidence-based strategies for beating jet lag, will increase the likelihood of you using the strategies, and decrease your negative experiences of jet lag.
Top Jet Lag-Busting Strategies
The bad news is that the only way to definitively prevent jet lag is to avoid travel to different time zones. But for those of you who already have that next exotic holiday on the horizon, the next best thing is to help your body to start adapting before you even leave home. The main advice for jet lag is to help your body clock sync with your destination time zone, and at the same time manage the fallout of the misalignment. The latter is the simpler option, involving for example melatonin-use to promote sleep, and stimulants such as coffee to promote wakefulness. However these strategies don’t address the underlying components of jet lag so their impact will be minimal. So here’s a quick breakdown of the main things you can do to shift your body clock in the direction of your holiday time zone, in order of most impactful.
One of the best things you can do is to schedule your sleep to match your destination sleep times. At a minimum you should aim to go to bed at your destination’s bedtime from the day you arrive. For this reason it’s a good idea to try and catch flights that arrive in the afternoon or evening, allowing you to go to bed not long after arrival, when you’re probably tired already from travel fatigue. Any sleep you get outside of the appropriate sleep times for your destination e.g. napping or sleeping on the plane (when it’s not nighttime in your destination time zone), can slow down the realignment process so should be avoided. To really maximise this strategy you can start shifting your sleep schedule before you leave home, adjusting by an hour or two each night in the few days leading up to your trip.
Because our sleep rhythms are largely dictated by daylight, the second best strategy for minimising jet lag is to use bright light to adjust the body clock. One of the reasons this is so effective is because bright light opposes the action of melatonin, the main hormone associated with sleep. Seek out sunlight in the morning after eastward travel, because it helps to shift the circadian clock earlier. Seek out sunlight in the evening after westward travel because it helps shift the circadian clock later. Easier said than done if you’re headed somewhere with minimal daylight hours, or where the weather is bleak. However, even a small amount of daylight can help and indoor lighting can have some impact too. Be aware though, that if you’re crossing more than eight time zones exposure to morning light can be perceived as dusk, or vice versa. In this case you can either adopt a more complicated light exposure schedule (for the real enthusiasts), or you can maximise all of the other strategies recommended here.
Physical activity can help minimise jet lag because of its sleep promoting effects, and because it can also promote wakefulness during the times you need to be more alert. Exercising outdoors can be especially helpful because of the double whammy of the physical activity and exposure to daylight. The key with this strategy is timing. Avoid over-exerting when you’re struggling with travel fatigue, and don’t exercise too close to bedtime, when you need to be inducing feelings of sleepiness.
4. When we eat, not what we eat
This one can be tricky because some of us will experience loss of appetite or indigestion on arrival in a new time zone. Some research has suggested that eating more protein in the morning and carbs in the evening in the new time zones can help alleviate symptoms of jet lag, but there’s not a strong evidence base for this. The thing more likely to impact is the timing of meals. So it’s less about ‘what’ we eat and more about ‘when’ we eat. Synchronising your mealtimes to the new time zone can help make the adjustment smoother. The hunger inducing hormone leptin is closely linked to sleep and circadian rhythms, so getting into a food routine can really help.
This can seem like a lot of effort to go to if your trip is a short one. And in fact the advice is clear: for trips shorter than three days it just isn’t worth the hassle. Realigning your circadian rhythm takes longer than this, so your best approach is to minimise the effects using short-term strategies like napping cleverly, and using caffeine and exercise to promote wakefulness. The shift will most easily be achieved on trips lasting at least four days.
Another fly in the ointment is the role of individual differences. For all of the strategies described above, there’s a great deal of variation between individuals in the rate of adaptation. Impacting factors include age, experience of long-haul travel, chronotype (whether you are a morning lark or a night owl), to name a few. The best way to manage this complication? Learn what works best for you through practice.
Perhaps just by reading this article your illness cognitions have already shifted, leaving you more optimistic about future jet lag! However, to really minimise that jet lag you can use this brief checklist next time you travel.
Things to consider:
- How many time zones am I crossing? Less than three, plan for travel fatigue, more than three plan for jet lag.
- Can I schedule my flights to arrive in the afternoon or evening?
- Can I start scheduling my sleep before I leave home?
Things to do:
- How long is the trip? Less than three days, focus on managing symptoms, more than three days consider using jet lag strategies to sync your body clock.
- Manage jet lag symptoms by promoting sleep and wakefulness at the appropriate times e.g. coffee, exercise, napping.
- Maximise exposure to daylight (early morning daylight for eastward travel, and evening daylight for westward).
- Get active. Plan some reasonable physical activity.
- Aim to eat at mealtimes that match your new time zone.
Most importantly of all, know what works best for you, and enjoy your next trip!
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Reilly, T., Atkinson, G., Edwards, B., Waterhouse, J., Åkerstedt, T., Davenne, D., … & Wirz-Justice, A. (2007). Coping with jet-lag: a position statement for the European College of Sport Science. European Journal of Sport Science, 7(1), 1-7.
Ruscitto, C., & Ogden, J. (2017). Predicting jet lag in long-haul cabin crew: The role of illness cognitions and behaviour. Psychology & health, 32(9), 1055-1081.
Waterhouse, J., Reilly, T., Atkinson, G., & Edwards, B. (2007). Jet lag: trends and coping strategies. The lancet, 369(9567), 1117-1129.
You can find out more about Dr Nicola, at her website The Family Sleep Consultant