Dr Perpetua Neo

What it’s like to have seasonal affective disorder when you’re also a night owl

Being a night owl can feel like a curse when you’re lying awake at night, knowing you need to drift off soon to get your seven to nine hours of recommended sleep. It also feels especially hard when it’s paired with Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD), which includes symptoms of lethargy, no desire to get up in the morning, and a low mood.

Being a night owl with SAD is hard considering the working day is already tough for people who hate mornings, according to psychologist Perpetua Neo.

“The corporate world generally is not catered to night owls, or any form of neurodiversity really,” she told INSIDER. “We’re just supposed to soldier on and then burn out, then come back again and feel like s— all over again.”

Neo said that along with the benefits of being a night owl, like creativity and impulsivity, there are certainly downsides, too.

“They tend to be creative and open to experiments,” she said. “But they also tend to be more sensitive, and blame themselves for when things go wrong, especially if they don’t feel good about being night owls to begin with.”

Night owls end up blaming themselves

It can feel like the easiest thing to do to blame yourself for being lazy when you see other people getting up at the crack of dawn without any issue. This self blame can easily turn into anxiety, Neo said.

“Early birds they tend to wake up early, their bodies wake up, all their hormones are kicking into play,” she said. “But for a night owl who wakes up at 7 a.m., it takes them until about 10 a.m. for their melatonin level secretions to stop and their blood pressure to finally surge to a normal level.”

Melatonin is the hormone your body releases to prepare for sleep. So if high levels are still in your system when you’re up in the morning, you’re bound to feel sleepy. Night owls often try and compensate with caffeine, but Neo said this is a bad idea. “A really big thing I always tell night owls to do is don’t drink coffee until 11 a.m.,” she said. “If you drink it at 7 a.m. you’re going to have the jitters.”

SAD can affect people in different ways, and there is a spectrum of how severely it impacts your life. But generally it is associated with feeling down, and some people report numbness and difficultly connecting with their emotions.

“It’s basically an inability to feel,” Neo said. “So ask yourself: how can I treat myself well? How can I build myself up to be the best version of myself?”

We all know that we’re supposed to exercise a certain amount, eat healthily, and get enough sleep for our body clock type. But that doesn’t mean we actually do it.

“Motivation isn’t something you can just create out of thin air,” Neo explained. “When you are depressed you need to be very gentle with yourself and know you are much less likely to do the things you ought to do, so don’t expect yourself to get all fired up and get motivated, because more often than not, you’re not going to find it.”

To combat the empty feeling the best thing you can do is take small steps, Neo said. Start with asking yourself what parts of yourself you could reclaim that you’ve lost to being numb. The smaller the step, the more likely you are to do it, and even the tiniest movements create momentum.

If you want to learn a language, for example, pick a page at random and tell yourself all you need to do is read it.

It’s also important to remember you don’t have to do everything, because this can feel like you’re piling one responsibility on top of another, and all of it together is totally unachievable.

To help get yourself motivated you can create an Eeisenhower Matrix graph of everything you have to do, with one axis labelled “urgency” and the other labelled “importance.”

Everything that’s high in urgency and importance you can start with, and everything that’s low in both you can get rid of.

“Then you know you have a more tangible way of deciding, because when you write things down they don’t have infinite space in your head to worry,” Neo said. “Because worrying isn’t the same as planning, and if within 20 minutes you haven’t solved anything, that worry has become much bigger – that’s essentially how anxiety works.”

Reframing the night

As a night owl, you’ll also gain a lot by reframing the night and learning to love it again, Neo said. Night owls are most productive in the evening because it’s when they get all their most creative ideas. So instead of allowing yourself to overthink the fact the day is over, you can tell yourself the night has started earlier and that means more time for your own thoughts.

It’ll also help to engage in a sleep ritual, and avoid too much blue light before you settle down. Turn your phone over when you set your alarm, so you don’t look at it again. “This is signalling to your brain that you are starting to wind down for sleep,” Neo said.

A hot shower helps too, she added.

“That will cause your melatonin to surge and your cortisol levels to decrease which preps your body for sleep,” she said. “So not only are you working on your body, you’re working on your brain by training itself to these cues. So over time, your brain learns when the time is to sleep and rest.”

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