Resetting the Clock

By Dr. Doreen Wiggins for Yoga Medicine®.

In the last three months, all of us have entered a new relationship with distance, time, and, as social beings, each other. To help prevent the spread of Covid-19, the disease caused by the novel coronavirus, governments have enacted stay-at-home orders and enforced strict social distancing policies. Businesses and schools are closed. Travel, for the most part, has ground to a halt. Some of us, including those employed in industries like food, healthcare, and manufacturing, have continued to show up for work, while the remainder of adults who were employed before the pandemic are working from home or have lost their jobs altogether. These months have brought tremendous loss and suffering—in different ways for different people—affecting us all.
 
Many of us are grieving, contending with not only the loss of life, but also the loss of so much that makes life meaningful, or at least lends it structure. If you are like me, you might feel as if you are adrift, less able to make sense of life without the schedule, appointments, and basic routines that made up your day. Without places to be, people to meet, and things to do, the days melt together, and time flows on without punctuation. I invite you to mourn this loss of structure. At the same time, I hope you find space within yourself to explore a new source of meaning within its absence.
 
I, for one, have been thinking about the fundamental nature of our interconnectedness—how, without the busyness of daily life, and despite this moment of social isolation, I feel that I have come into closer connection with the rhythms and pace of the Earth, my body, and the cosmic forces from which all life is drawn. I am resetting the clock.
 
As a physician and a mother, I derive meaning from serving my patients and raising my children. My daily routine, while at times demanding, has helped structure and orient my life. Tuesday and Wednesday evenings, for instance, meant that I was teaching yoga, while Thursday evening was spent taking a yoga class, and Friday meant an early morning and a full day in the operating room. Three nights per week, I wouldn’t be home until after 9:30 p.m., as I would be picking up my daughter from dance practice an hour away from home. Amid this busy schedule, I have always found time to nourish myself with outdoor exercise, eating well, and practicing yoga. Despite these attempts to find balance, however, I often felt out of whack. I was stretching myself too thin, coming home exhausted, and sleeping poorly. It felt like I was trying to keep up with two different clocks, one set to the demands of my schedule and the other to my own innate circadian rhythm. I was out of sync.
 
I was experiencing what the chronobiologist Till Roenneberg calls “social jet lag,” or SJL. It is the gulf between our internal clock and the demands of our social world. According to Roenneberg, social jet lag “promotes practically everything that is bad for our body,” from weight gain to reduced mental performance, inflammation, cytokines, type 2 diabetes, and chronic illness. Studies suggest the circadian misalignment occurring in SJL can lead to bad health habits, including cigarette smoking, caffeine overconsumption, increased risk for cardiovascular disease, and even certain forms of cancer.
 
Our social obligations have pressured us to manipulate time and disregard our internal clocks, which, believe it or not, are somewhat genetically predetermined and set to the rhythms of our natural world.
 
The most poignant aspect of interconnectedness to our planet, every life form has been dependent on the tilted rotation of the earth for over 4.5 billion years. The circadian clock, a biological rhythm set by the 24-hour cycle of light and dark has been an inherent foundation of health and wellness in the oldest practices of medicine. Traditional Chinese Medicine and Ayurvedic Medicine, each have circadian cornerstones for health, and bridging wellness to deeper understanding of “harmony between humans and nature”.
 
Our manipulation of time, ignoring nature’s cues has not only misaligned our innate genetic circadian rhythm and health, it extends to the world around us. One of the great observations of slowing down human movement that has emerged during the pandemic is the impact we have on our environment. Measurable from space, and visible on earth, atmospheric pollution and greenhouse emissions have declined in some areas by 50%. The Himalayan Mountains previously hidden from smog can be seen in a distance, clear vibrant waterways have emerged, nature and wildlife are venturing to reclaim otherwise busy human occupied spaces. Humans have imposed an “environmental jet lag” on mother earth, placing human priorities above the natural rhythm needed to sustain a balance with nature. Environmental warming, pollution, disruption of natural resources, the earth has suffered from humans. Nature has shown us the ability to heal in a short few weeks by global sheltering in place. If human’s sheltering in place could aid the planet’s healing, imagine the impact we could make by being intentful, nurturing our environment and tapping into nature’s circadian wisdom. Perhaps it is time to “reset the clock” and to look at ways to improve balance within each of us, and maintain harmony with the world around us.
 
Resources:
 
  • Sűdy ÁR, Ella K, Bódizs R, Káldi K. Association of Social Jetlag with Sleep Quality and Autonomic Cardiac Control During Sleep in Young Healthy Men. Front Neurosci. 2019;13:950. Published 2019 Sep 6. doi:10.3389/fnins.2019.00950
  • Clocks & Sleep 2019, 1, 435–458; doi:10.3390/clockssleep1040034