Travel temper? Jetlag makes us irritable, moody and less empathetic

Everyone who made at least one longer trip across timezones can imagine vividly how it impacts our body. We feel tired and without energy, we wake up and fall asleep at wrong times, and are much more likely to get sick. Our mental capacities also suffer – it’s more difficult not just to come up with creative ideas, but even just keep our minds focused on the task at hand.

With all that going on we may be too distracted to notice how strongly travel and disrupted sleep influence our emotions. But it is definitely something worth paying attention – your emotional state influences your experience, and the experience of those you meet.

When we travel for work it’s also mostly to meet people, to build or refresh business relationship, to take part in negotiations or do some on-site creative problem solving. And nobody wants to argue with their spouse or friends on holidays, we want everyone to have a great time and great memories.

Whether we travel for business or go on family holiday, in both of these cases we need all the patience, positive energy and social skills and that we can muster.

But long travel creates perfect emotional storm by making us

  • More reactive to stimuli,
  • Less able to control our reactions,
  • Not able to “sleep off” our emotional tension 
  • Less capable to understand what others around us are thinking and feeling.

This is because jetlag “hacks” our brains in several ways to prevent us from achieving the needed emotional balance.

  1. It affects the prefrontal cortex, the place where our cognitive skills, but also emotional control reside. Impaired metabolism in this area of the brain results in less control over our emotions.
  2. It increases activity in amygdala, our “reptilian brain” part that is responsible for our instinctive reactions.
    Couple these two – higher reactivity and lower self-control – and you get a highly flammable mix.
  3. Third comes the disruption of neurotransmitter release during our sleep, which are required to consolidate our feelings and emotions, and to soften the emotional edge of our memories. (As Dr. Walker says – It’s not time that heals, it’s the time when we sleep.”)
  4. On top of that, our capability to understand others around us is undermined too.
    Another area of our brain that gets impacted with disrupted sleep is fusiform gyrus, where the ability to read facial expressions of others resides. This is a delicate mechanism that we evolved to be able to understand our fellow human beings and is required for peaceful cooperation. Imagine that you are not able to read if your spouse is or is not happy with your choice of a restaurant, or how your business partner feels about the contract conditions you’ve just proposed. Not helpful – but this is exactly what is happening.

It has been even shown that jetlag often worsens symptoms of depression and anxiety. There is also two-way relationship between mood disorders and circadian rhythm disruptions, creating a negative feedback loop.

But even if you don’t suffer from those, making sure that you will adjust smoothly to your new timezone and environment, and feel rested and relaxed, will help you have more productive and empathetic business meetings, or much more enjoyable holiday.

One of the effective tools you can use is the Hecatee app, which distills the different tactics to avoid jetlag into a practical actions timed based on your own flight. You can sign up for pilot here.


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