If you consistently struggle to go to bed at a “normal” hour, and often feel exhausted when you wake up, it could be a sign of delayed sleep phase syndrome (DSPS). This is something about 15 percent of teens and adults experience, many of whom refer to themselves as “night owls” since they stay up later than the average person. And rightly so.
DSPS affects your internal clock, causing it to run a bit later than everyone else’s. “Delayed sleep phase syndrome is a disorder associated with circadian rhythm,” Chris Brantner, sleep expert and founder of SleepZoo, tells Bustle. “It basically means that your sleep pattern is shifted two [or more] hours. So you get sleepy much later than you should, and you’re ready to awake much later.”
While it’s not necessarily a problem in and of itself, many people with DSPS find that their internal clock doesn’t match up with the rest of society — and causes problems as a result. “The major problem is that this can affect your work and social life,” Brantner says. From struggling to wake up in time for a nine-to-five job, to feeling tired throughout the day, folks with DSPS find that their “night owl” life holds them back.
The good news is, there are ways to adjust your sleep schedule, and feel better. Here are a few signs of DSPS that may explain your night owl ways, according to experts, as well as what to do about it.
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You Can’t Go To Bed On Time
The first and most obvious sign of DSPS is that, instead of going to bed at a typical bedtime, you find that you’re still wide awake — long after everyone else has gone to sleep.
“Every body has an internal clock that governs our sleep and wake cycles,” licensed psychologist Vanessa H. Roddenberry, PhD, tells Bustle. “This clock sets a window of time during which sleep is possible each night. For those with DSPS, it’s like their ‘sleep window’ is on Pacific Time, while everyone else is on Eastern. Until they are in their sleep window, sleep won’t be possible.”
You Have A Hard Time Waking Up In The Morning
Plenty of people struggle to get out of bed, simply because they’re comfy or a little bit groggy. But for folks with DSPS, the inability to get out of bed can be so severe it impacts their lives — sometimes making it impossible for them to maintain typical nine-to-five jobs.
“Since your circadian rhythm is off, you’d wake up just fine every day on a delayed schedule,” Brantner says. “But being forced to get up when everyone else does leaves you miserable.”
This is, again, due to the fact your natural sleep/wake cycle is set later than the average person. “Night owls still need the same amount of sleep, it’s just positioned differently (i.e., later) in the clock cycle,” Dr. Jeffrey Ellenbogen, a board-certified sleep specialist, neurologist, and director of The Sound Sleep Project, tells Bustle. “One might say their ‘biological clock is delayed’ with respect to the rest of the populations more typical habits.”
You Feel Groggy And Tired All Day
On days when you are able to sleep in — which will generally be late into the morning, if you have DSPS — you may notice that you sleep well, sleep late, and wake up feeling refreshed.
But if you’re forced to get up for an early morning schedule, don’t be surprised if grogginess lasts all day. “While some with DSPS can feel well-rested and refreshed if they sleep in the way that works for their body, many with delayed sleep phase syndrome feel chronically exhausted and sleepy,” Ginger Houghton, LMSW, CAADC, a therapist specializing in sleep issues, tells Bustle.
This is because your natural sleep cycle is being interrupted by the demands of society — such as having to wake up early for work — even though you only got a few hours of sleep.
You Need More Rest Than Everyone Else
If you’ve noticed that your partner feels great after seven hours of sleep, or your roommates typically bound of bed after eight hours, then you may begin to feel “lazy” in comparison.
But if you feel like you need more sleep than everyone else, it may just be a sign of DSPS. As Houghton says, “Some studies show that on average, people with DSPS need more sleep than the general population regardless of when the sleep occurs.” So if you need naps and longer sleep times than everyone else you know, it may be a sign.
You Have Symptoms Of Sleep Deprivation
“Those with delayed sleep phase syndrome are vulnerable to chronic sleep deprivation because they are often forced to be awake on a regular schedule to get to school […] or go to work,” Houghton says. “This means that they are often functioning on three to four hours of sleep,” which isn’t anywhere near therecommended seven to nine hours you need each night.
As a result, you may notice that you’re more accident prone, forget things easily, feel clumsy, or have delayed reaction times. “A history of falls, car accidents, or silly blunders can often signal that there is a need for an evaluation for DSPS,” Houghton says.
Your Sleep Schedule Is Causing Anxiety
Over time, DSPS can result in “psychological symptoms like depression or anxiety because of the toll it takes on the person’s work, relationships, and self-esteem,” Houghton says. And this is all thanks to the expectations society places on people to wake up early; to “rise and shine.”
“It’s rare that bosses, significant others, or friends understand that the person has very little choice or control over their sleep and the ways lack of sleep is impacting their life,” Houghton says. “Often times, those with DSPS don’t even realize themselves what is happening that is making sleep and life such a struggle. This leaves room for negative thoughts, self-hate, and frequent worries to creep in.”
Your Social Life Is Impacted
Going off of that, since this is a sleep syndrome that’s highly misunderstood, it can even lead to problems with friends, family, and relationships.
“Everyday connections in relationships are very challenging when people with DSPS are literally functioning on a different schedule or forcing themselves to work on a schedule that works for everyone else,” Houghton says. “This can result in getting fired, breakups, and poor self-esteem when the person feels like they just can’t get it together.”
That is, until you find ways to adjust your schedule, or seek the help of your doctor or sleep specialist, who can help you find ways to overcome DSPS.
You’d Actually Like To Have A Normal Bedtime
Due to all the negative side effects, you may find that you’d like to be on a normal sleep schedule, and go to bed when everyone else does. But you as they might, it just doesn’t work.
“People who call themselves ‘night owls’ may enjoy staying up late but for people with DSPS this is not a choice,” Dr. Roddenberry says. Due to your circadian rhythm, it’s your whole life that’s on a delay.
Remember, though, that this is different from insomnia. “If left to their own devices, such as on a break or vacation, most DSPS sufferers are able to log six to nine hours of restorative sleep, which distinguishes them from insomniacs who struggle to fall asleep even when they want to do so,” Dr. Roddenberry says. “The problem is that the restorative DSPS sleep is often from the wee hours to the afternoon.”
You’ve Had Symptoms For At Least Three Months
Due to travel, illness, or stress, we all go through phases in life when it’s tough to fall asleep. Generally, these moments pass, and we find ourselves going to bed at a normal hour again. But for folks with DSPS, the saga continues.
As Martin Reed, a certified clinical sleep health expert, tells Bustle, symptoms have to exist for at least three months to consider them a sign of DSPS.
If you suspect that might be the case, and your DSPS symptoms are negatively impacting your life, your first step should be to see a sleep specialist. They can offer a diagnosis, and point you in the right direction in terms of treatment plans, which might include light therapy.
“For those with DSPS, exposure to bright light in the morning can be helpful,” Reed says. “Exposure of at least 2,500 lux of light for two to three hours in the morning has been found to help advance the sleep phase. [Also], taking melatonin in the evening may help with DSPS,” along with other healthy lifestyle changes.
It may also be necessary to adopt a new schedule that better fits with your night owl ways, possibly by changing your shifts at work. Your focus should be figuring out what works best for you, and whatever helps you get good sleep.