Jet Lag Isn’t For the Faint of Heart!
When our oldest son, Hunter came from Detroit to visit us for the first time in Shanghai, he thought he had the whole jet lag thing figured out. “I’m going to pull an all-nighter the day before I leave so I’ll be really tired and sleep on the plane the whole way there. That way, once I get there, I’ll be wide awake and ready to go”. Brett and I just nodded our head’s and told him we would see how that theory played out. Sure enough, he was exhausted, but still couldn’t sleep well on the plane so wound up arriving in Shanghai 15 hours later even more tired than he would have been if he had prepared for the journey like a normal person.
I’ve heard every theory under the sun for how people plan on attacking jet lag, and although there are those rare people to whom it doesn’t seem to affect (and I truly hate those people), 9.999 times out of 10, every attempt ends in failure. Not only that, but I’ve gone through this grueling process so many times now that I can almost predict how the majority of people will react. Here’s how it plays out:
Night 1: The first night you arrive at your destination, you’ll be so exhausted from travel that you will actually sleep really well. Don’t be fooled! This is just your body’s way of tricking you into thinking you’ve beat the system.
Night 2: The next day you’ll hit your jet-lagged wall about 3:00 pm. If you manage to make it through until a decent bedtime, more power to you, but don’t think this means you’re going to sleep through the night again. You silly person! No, you’ll most certainly fall asleep as soon as your head hits the pillow, but then sometime between 4-5 am, BOING! Your eyes will open and you’ll be wide awake (perhaps until morning) thinking about all kinds of irrelevant things like, “if airlines were smart, they’d put a spa on the plane so travelers can schedule an inflight massage.”. I’m here to tell you, I’ve planned out all the details of such spas throughout many a sleepless jet-lagged night!
Nights 3-6: Like Groundhog Day, repeat the process from night 2 for the next three days, with each subsequent night offering one extra hour’s sleep before wake up and voila, after about a week, you’ve finally fully adjusted. Hallelujah! Hopefully, this won’t be just in time for you to return home and start the entire process over again.
Jet lag is even so kind as to be nondiscriminatory. Trust me on the one. It doesn’t matter if you’re 12 or 82, a college partier or a homebody, an early bird or a night owl. Nope, everyone gets hit the same. There’s simply just no way to avoid it. So don’t get cocky by pinning 15 different jet lag busters on Pinterest, and think you’ll somehow beat the system because it’s just not gonna happen. Instead, simply buckle up and prepare for the ride.
Since I’ve been down this road so many times, I’m here to tell you that there are some tricks of the jet lag trade that will help you power through. Although you will still be jet-lagged, at least you’ll know the best ways to attack it head on, and perhaps relieve some of your suffering in the process. I should add as a side note, that we typically face a 12-hour time change when we travel to/from home and although other time differences will be difficult, this one is the grand daddy of them all.
1. Take advantage of that first good night’s sleep.
You’ve been through a lot throughout your travel and your body’s exhausted. Take advantage of this fact. I typically sleep almost 12 hours the first night after a long-haul flight. Nothing feels better than a shower and lying horizontal after traveling for 12+ hours (our last trip from the US to Bangkok was 25 hours! Now that one’s a doozy).
2. Don’t be afraid to seek help.
Meaning, sleeping pills or supplements to help you sleep. I’ve tried sleeping pills, melatonin, and diffusing lavender essential oil help me. Now, I don’t recommend using them all at once, of course, but find one or two that work for you and use them the first few nights. In addition, having a houseful of screaming kids will help you sleep at night too. If you want some, I’m happy to put some of mine on loan to you. 😉
3. The first 3 days are the worst.
You know how Jesus rose again on the third day? Well my friend, so will you. I wish I could sugar-coat it and tell you that you won’t feel like you are walking around with a fog hanging over your head but then I would just be lying. It’s the strangest feeling. Sometimes I even still feel like I’m on the plane. But for some reason, after the third day, the fog lifts and you can begin to once again function like a normal human being. It’s always funny walking through the grocery store the first few days after a big expat holiday. It looks like the store has been overrun by the zombie apocalypse. Everyone’s walking around with a glazed look in their eyes while putting who knows what into their cart.
4. Strive to stay awake until at least 8 pm.
This will help your body adapt to your new time zone and ultimately help you more effectively overcome jet lag. Sounds easy, right? Haha! We’ll see.
5. Go back to kindergarten.
Nap time may be your best friend when fighting jet lag. Just make sure you nap carefully. I highly recommend napping before 3pm, and only for 30 minutes. Now I know you may have hit your wall and just want to go to bed for good at 3:00, but fight that urge with everything you have. After all, you aren’t going to get adjusted to your new time zone if you have an afternoon bedtime. In addition, if you nap longer than 30 minutes, you run the risk of not being able to fall asleep when it is actually time to go to dreamland. Trust me on this one, there’s scientific evidence to back me up here.
6. Embrace the tired.
It’s important not to push yourself too hard in the first few days while adjusting to your new timezone. Instead, simply enjoy this time with family or friends. Get a massage. Maybe go check-out a site or two, but remember that 3:00 witching hour will be lurking at your door and when it arrives, be sure to cut yourself some slack. The same goes for moodiness or, dare I say, grumpiness? Remember, your poor body is exhausted so it’s ok to cry if someone doesn’t pass you the ketchup fast enough. Sounds weird, but I’ve cried over things way more stupid than that.
7. Figure out what’s going to work best for you at 4am.
Brett and I take very different approaches to this problem. I become a fierce fighter and stubbornly lay in bed looking at the ceiling because, “darn it, I WILL adjust”. While he embraces the early wake up by getting out of bed, making coffee, and watching the sunrise in quiet peace. However, no matter what, we both end up adjusting at the same speed so it’s just important to figure out what will help get you through those frustratingly early hours so you don’t go crazy.
8. Give working out a try.
Although the last thing you may want to do is go for a run, studies have shown that working out helps improve sleep, and at this point I’m sure you’re willing to try anything to help you make it through the night!
9. Plan enough time in your trip to adjust to jet lag.
I always tell people who are planning on a trip to our side of the world to allow a minimum of 2 weeks vacation if possible. The first three days are really rough, and considering it takes a full week to get adjusted to the time difference (we’re 12 hours ahead of the US), wouldn’t it be nice to have a full week after you’ve adjusted and feel human again to sightsee or do activities without feeling as if you will pass out if you merely sit down?
10. East to West is best.
It’s easier to overcome jet lag when traveling from East to West. I don’t know why, but for some reason this is the case every single time, and not just for us. I’ve talked to other expats who experience the same thing. Weird, right? I’m sure there’s some science-y reason behind it but that’s beyond my expertise, sorry.
As I said before, Jet lag is not for the faint of heart. But take heart! This too shall pass and you will soon be back to your good-old magnanimous self, ready to take on this new adventure before you.
Good luck, and sweet dreams!
Special thanks to Autumn Lytle for organizing all our awkward family photos I know the amount available was endless). Who knew they would be perfect for this post? 😉