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Work-Life Balance

daylight savings timeI was going to write a post about Daylight Saving Time yesterday, but I was feeling very draggy for some reason. It couldn’t have anything to do with that tiny little nudge forward of the clock’s hour hand Sunday morning, could it? One measly hour out of my life, taken from the middle of a weekend. How much damage could that possibly do?

Turns out, the damage potential is pretty impressive. “People often feel draggy the day after they have to set their clocks forward in the spring but often shrug off that feeling as trivial,” says Erik Herzog, PhD, a neuroscientist at Washington University in St. Louis who studies biological clocks. “In fact,” he says, “jamming our biological clocks into reverse, as daylight saving time does, has serious consequences.” (Aha! I knew it!)

“Daylight saving time does not seem to help conserve energy, one of its original goals. Instead, the evidence is that the one hour advance of our wall clocks each spring is associated with statistically higher rates of traffic accidents over the following three days and heart attacks over the following two days,” Herzog says.DaylightSavingsTimeSm

You’ll want to check out Herzog’s research on his Washington University website, because Daylight Saving Time is only one of the ways we knock our circadian rhythms out of kilter.

In June of 2013 Herzog published research in the journal Neuron reporting the discovery of a crucial part of the biological clock: the wiring that sets its accuracy to within a few minutes out of the 1440 minutes per day.  Two networks (VIP and GABA), they have found, ensure the clock runs as a coordinated, precise timepiece but one that can still adjust its timing to synchronize with the environment.

“We think the neurotransmitter network is there to introduce enough jitter into the system to allow the neurons to resynchronize when environmental cues change, as they do with the seasons,” Herzog said. However, he explains, “since this biological ‘reset button’ evolved long before mechanical clocks, Elderly Navajo Womanartificial lights, and high-speed travel, it doesn’t introduce enough jitter to allow us to adjust quickly to the extreme time shifts of modern life, such as flying ‘backward’ (east) through several time zones.”

Understanding this system is important for understanding the health effects of messing with the body clock: in terms of daylight saving times, shift work, school starting times, medical intern schedules, truck driver hours, and many other areas where we attempt to push the body’s clock beyond its natural limits.

And as serious as heart attacks and traffic accidents are, researchers have also found that disruptions to the body clock caused by shift work contribute to obesity, and the World Health Organization lists shift work as a potential carcinogen.

It’s beginning to look as though feeling draggy is the least of my worries. It’s almost enough to make me consider moving to Arizona. But then . . . there must be research into the health effects of extreme heat, tarantulas and scorpions. I could look it up, but I think I’d rather take a nap.

stress effectsIt will come as no surprise to anyone who keeps up with psychology research that much of who we are and what we do goes back to the quality of our family relationships. Positive, supportive family relationships contribute to our well-being in countless ways—while negative, abusive ones can be deadly.

Of course, most of us don’t tend to analyze what we do from the viewpoint of our own family history—we just want to give our children the best possible environment for their physical and emotional development because we love them. They’re an extension of us, we’re invested in their future. It just happens to be a bonus for society that when we focus on meeting the needs of our children, the wider community and future generations reap benefits too.

But it isn’t always easy  to carve out the necessary quality family time in our busy Western society. Increasingly, families need two wage-earners just supply the “basics.” School, extracurricular activities and other obligations also encroach on down time. How do these daily stressors affect familes? This was the question explored by Rena Repetti and her colleagues at the University of California, Los Angeles, in a peer reviewed study published in the April 2009 issue of Current Directions in Psychological Science.

“The family is popularly imagined as a stable haven, a place where individuals come together to recuperate from the ups and downs of the outside world,” wrote the researchers. “But the family has ups and downs of its own; it is a dynamic system, not impermeable to outside influences but porous and continually in flux. For example, parents’ job schedules and children’s homework shape family time, activities, and routines. Other effects of work and school on the family are less overt.”

Certainly, as the researchers explain, people often continue to react to a stressful event long after it has occurred and may find themselves nursing too many work wounds at home as a result. How does the fallout affect family relationships?

“We have found that, following more stressful days at work, spouses and parents adjust their social behavior at home in two ways.” write the UCLA researchers. “One common pattern is an overall reduction in social engagement and expression of emotion.” Mothers as well as fathers withdrew emotionally and disengaged socially from their children after stressful or exceptionally demanding work days. Spouses “were more distracted and less responsive” toward one another. Children also showed lingering reactions to school stress. Both elementary-school-age children and teens initiated more conflict with other family members after a day filled with academic problems or difficulties with peers.

“A second short-term response to job stress resembles the stereotypic image of an agitated employee kicking his dog after an argument with his boss,” says the report. This plays out as “an increase in irritability and displays of anger with both spouse and children.” Ripetti and her colleagues note that this second pattern is most likely to occur in people who have a history of psychological distress.

How harmful is all this take-home stress in the long run? It depends. If the short-term effects are allowed to build up over time, there may be more lasting effects. Especially within families with high levels of conflict, or where one or more family members have a history of depression and anxiety.

We do know from other studies that family support and parental engagement are crucial to the well-being of children, so if our coping style in reaction to stress at work involves withdrawing from our families at home, it can’t be good over the long haul. As difficult as it may be to push ourselves out of our comfort zone, resilience experts suggest that connecting, rather than withdrawing, is our best bet for handling stress. Rapetti’s research is fascinating and important in several respects: but perhaps the most important thing parents can take home from this study is a new awareness of what they may be bringing home to their children at the end of their work day.

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