Almost everyone has experienced the lingering blahs that come in the early afternoon and seem to linger until the day is finally over. As we’re still mostly working and schooling from home, figuring out how to manage and navigate this midday slump is more important than ever.
The midday blahs are caused by circadian rhythms, or the body’s intrinsic cycles of sleeping and waking that occur over a 24-hour period.
“There is an intrinsic dip in alertness that occurs anywhere from late morning to mid-afternoon lasting about 90 minutes for most people and corresponds to ‘siesta time,’” said Clifford Singer, chief of Geriatric Mental Health and Neuropsychiatry at Northern Light Acadia Hospital. “Alertness tends to increase from mid-afternoon to early evening, and some people experience their most energetic and alert period of the day in those late hours.”
Lauren Holleb, associate professor of psychology at Husson University, said that the midday slump will generally occur between 1 and 4 p.m.
The exact timing of a midday slump might vary from person to person.
“The timing of the midday slump can be influenced by a person’s ‘chronotype’; that is, whether they are a morning lark or a night owl or somewhere in between — and of course, whether they keep conventional hours or work nights,” Singer said. “Morning-oriented people who rise at dawn will have their midday slump before noon, [whereas] evening types may not experience a drop in energy and alertness until mid or late afternoon, then get energized for evening.”
Aside from your internal clock, behaviors like sleep and diet can also contribute to feelings of fatigue during this time.
“Not getting enough sleep can definitely contribute to the midday slump,” Holleb said. “Consuming a heavy, simple carbohydrate heavy lunch or a lunch high in sugar can also contribute to afternoon fatigue. Simple carbohydrates lead to a spike in blood sugar, but this spike drops off quickly, which translates into feeling tired. Similarly, if you are not drinking enough liquids and become dehydrated, this can contribute to afternoon fatigue.”
“A large midday meal may make the midday slump more pronounced, but research has shown the slump can occur even with fasting, although it may have less intensity,” Singer added. “Sitting for long periods of time can also worsen the slump. Sedating medications and other substances can also increase the effects of this natural daily nadir of alertness.”
The sedentary lifestyle and other daily life changes of the pandemic have exacerbated many of the issues that contribute to the midday slump.
“‘Zoom fatigue’ is a very real thing,” Holleb said. “The first peer-reviewed article to examine this phenomenon was recently released and identified several reasons why video conferencing contributes to fatigue, including reduced mobility, more mental effort may be necessary [because] nonverbal communication is harder to interpret, excessive direct eye gaze that is not what people do in real life and constantly seeing yourself in real-time.”
Another contributing factor to the midday slump — one that many are all too familiar with during the pandemic — is stress.
“Perhaps not surprisingly, stress level can play a role in the midday slump,” Holleb said. “Cortisol, a stress hormone, goes into overdrive when we experience stress and can remain elevated during times of chronic stress, leaving us worn down and more susceptible to illness and injury.”
How to deal with the midday slump
The best way to combat the midday slump is to move. Take breaks from sitting and staring at your computer screen to stretch, go for a walk outside, dance — whatever gets you up and out of your seat.
“Getting up and walking around or fitting in even 15 minutes of exercise can make a huge difference in energy levels,” Holleb said.
“If you are not able to fit regular exercise into your schedule, this too may contribute to the midday slump,” Holleb said. “Regular exercise raises our levels of serotonin and helps stabilize blood sugar levels.”
Singer also suggested taking a 20- to 30-minute nap.
“Ironically, people with chronic insomnia may be unable to nap during the day even though they are very sleepy, so other techniques may be more helpful for them,” he added. “[For example,] try 10 to 20 minutes of sitting meditation.”
Holleb, however, warned against relying too heavily on the “power nap,” as it can further disrupt your sleep cycle.
“Instead, try to get up and move around, ideally outside, to reduce tension, get your blood and oxygen pumping, and boost your vitamin D from the natural light,” she said.
Singer added that caffeine might give you an immediate boost, but you should not drink caffeine within eight hours of bedtime, otherwise you might compromise your sleep and further exacerbate your midday blahs.
“Try not to reach for empty calories high in sugar or simple carbohydrates [either],” Holleb said. “When you feel hungry, try energy boosting protein-packed snacks such as a handful of nuts or Greek yogurt.”
Improving your sleep habits will also help decrease the effects of the midday slump.
“It is recommended that adults get at least seven hours of sleep per night to promote optimal health and well-being,” Holleb said. “Having a regular sleep cycle, where you go to bed and wake up around the same time everyday can be beneficial.”
Also, try to manage your stress and anxiety, whatever that means for you.
“Set aside time to do something each day for yourself. Determine what feeds your soul and prioritize that in your life. Find fulfilling hobbies that you enjoy,” Holleb said. “Seek support from a mental health professional if you are experiencing longer-lasting or significant feelings of depression or anxiety.”
Holleb also suggested adjusting your schedule to limit your exposure to fatiguing tasks, like video conferencing.
“If you have control over your schedule, think about the best times of day for you,” Holleb said. “Also consider briefly turning off your camera to give yourself a cognitive break and getting up and walking around between meetings.”
If your feelings of fatigue persist and affect your ability to function, Holleb said you might want to talk to a professional.
“If you are feeling significantly fatigued for more than a couple of weeks and it is not due to sleep deprivation, consider consulting your physician as there are medical issues that can present with fatigue,” Holleb said.
However, feelings of midday fatigue are mostly natural and manageable.
“I don’t know that you can avoid it altogether because it is wired into our body clocks in the brain’s hypothalamus,” Singer said. “If you’re well rested, physically active, get plenty of exposure to natural or full-spectrum light and don’t sit for long periods of time during the day, your midday slump may be barely noticeable.”
Correction: An earlier version of this report misstated when melatonin secretion occurs.