A case of the Monday mornings

Mondays are tough. It can feel like we have been hit by a truck when we wake up in the morning. Usually we’re a lot more tired, it’s harder to get up out of the bed, and we are particularly irritated seeing others’ cheery smiles.

But why is this? Certainly, the fact that many of us are transitioning from a pleasant and free weekend into starting a new week of work probably does not help. However, this is only a part of the equation.

We can also explain why many of us experience a bad case of the Mondays from a sleep science perspective.

Irregular schedules and social jetlag

When we travel across time zones, we often experience something called ‘jet-lag’. We tend to feel a lot more groggy and tired, our hunger signals are all over the place, and we sleep and wake up at irregular times.

This phenomenon occurs because our internal clock is not well-aligned with the new clock on wall. Our body might still be in San Francisco time even though we are currently living in New York time.

What’s interesting is that ‘jet-lag’ symptoms can occur even when we don’t travel at all. It can happen just by virtue of having an irregular schedule, especially when we decide to go to bed and when we get out of bed.

Take for example: Betty goes to bed on Monday at 11:00pm and wakes up at 7:00am. The next day, she goes to bed at 2:00am and wakes up at 10:00am. This creates a 3-hour variability in bed/rise times between Monday and Tuesday. This shift can lead to the same jet-lag effect as traveling from Vancouver to Toronto!

If we were to apply this example to weekends, people often keep a fairly consistent rising time during the week because of work. However, they may be prone to sleeping in on Saturdays and Sundays. The shift back to Monday can lead to what we sleep researchers call “social jetlag’ – the change in schedule creates substantial jetlag symptoms that make Monday more of a monster than it already is.

Diagram of a person's schedule
A nice visual demonstration of ‘social jetlag’ at work. The person gets out of bed at around 7am on weekdays, but gets up near noon on Sunday. This is equivalent to travelling from London, Ontario to London, UK!

Sleep pressure build-up on weekends

Sleep pressure, or sleep drive, is our propensity to fall asleep at any given moment. We build up more sleep drive the more we are active and awake throughout our day to day. The more sleep drive we have, the deeper our sleep is likely to be.

Throughout the week, some people may be in a slight state of sleep deprivation, because of work, chores, taking care of kids, among everything else. In this case, sleep pressure is high.

On Friday and Saturday, people may get a chance to truly refresh themselves by expending all the built-up sleep pressure and get a good night’s sleep.

For those who sleep in, however, this can be a bit troublesome because they may wake up later than usual (e.g., 10am instead of 7:00am). This gives a person less time to build-up sleep drive for the day before going to sleep on Sunday night. As deep sleep is related to the amount of time we spend awake and active, our sleep drive is unlikely to be as high on Sunday night.

The result is less refreshing sleep compounded with the jetlag symptoms from an irregular schedule.

Person walking outside
Taking a brisk walk in the morning is a great way to increase sleep drive, break out of sleep inertia, and get some light exposure for our circadian clock!

A few evidence-based strategies to deal with Monday mornings

Keeping to a regular schedule can be a great way to reduce social jetlag. That being said, I understand the joy of being able to sleep-in (a little bit of relaxing the schedule is completely okay!) – just try to keep it reasonably consistent.

Besides waking up a bit earlier, staying active (e.g., taking a walk, jogging, cycling) throughout your day can be a good way to increase sleep pressure, so the Sunday night sleep is more restorative.

Beyond these sleep strategies, there are fatigue management strategies that can break sleep inertia and get you up and running as soon as possible. Alternatively, stress management strategies can be a good way to reduce the impact that potential stress and worries about work and life can have on your sleep.

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Best wishes,