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Understanding Seasonal Affective Disorder; How To Survive The Winter

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May 6, 2016
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Boston Evening Therapy Content

Spring May Tilt Mood Too Much Upward if Sensitive to Seasonal Change

For most of us, the uplift from the longer daylight and psychological rejuvenation that comes with spring simply feels good. Indeed, springtime is often a welcome relief, especially if you live in a climate that has long, cold winters.

"At the same time as most of us are rolling up our sleeves and spending more time outdoors, others struggle with trying to get into that kind of mode, and counter-intuitively, they feel worse," says Harvard psychiatrist John Sharp, author of The Emotional Calendar.

All the Factors At Play

Sharp’s book examines how physical, psychological and socio-cultural factors influence the way we feel. It’s based on his extensive research into the effects that the changing seasons have on our mental health and emotional well-being.

Sharp breaks the effect of seasons into three categories:

  1. The physical realm: These are factors like light and temperature. Extra hours of sunlight and rising temperatures can increase the levels of serotonin and dopamine in the body. Those chemicals are responsible for feelings of well-being.
  2. Cultural events: Festivals and summer holidays change the daily and weekly routine.
  3. Anniversaries. Whether it’s for something positive, like a graduation or wedding, or a negative event, like death and loss, seasonal cues trigger our senses and can cause us to relive these moments.

Understanding What Spring is Like For Those Who Suffer From Depression

For most people, more daylight, warmer temperatures, outdoor events and the vacations of summer are rejuvenating. But Sharp says for those who suffer from depression, spring can have the opposite effect.

While Seasonal Affective Disorder, or SAD, is when a person is negatively affected by the darkness and other elements of winter, a BBC World Service article points out that some people suffer from Reverse SAD in spring. Being aware of this possible psychological effect of spring makes it possible to deflect a drop in mood.

Suggestions to Offset a Downward Psychological Shift in Spring:

  1. Be Aware of Triggers: Understand your personal triggers that might lead to depression. An example of one of these triggers is seeing other people who appear to be generally happier in spring. That can lead a person with a bipolar disorder or a tendency to depression to begin to compare himself or herself with others. That “comparison factor” might spark depression. One way to learn to change these negative “comparison” thought patterns is with the assistance of a mental health professional. Cognitive behavioral therapy is one form of talk therapy that can help confront negative thought patterns.
  2. Understand the social pressures of spring activities: The warm spring weather brings an increase in outdoor activities and group events, such as corporate or community picnics, sporting events and informal barbeques. Sometimes people who are struggling with bipolar disorders or depression may feel that the somewhat common isolation of winter has given way to the more social activities of spring – for everyone else, but not for them. That feeling of being left out of social activities can be an emotional pressure that may lead to a downward psychological shift toward depression. It’s important to be aware of these social pressures and take part in outdoor, spring activities as you feel comfortable, and understand that you may participate in none, or a few, or many, as you choose. Again, a mental health professional can help keep this social pressure in perspective and help plan for participation in spring social activities that are positive for a person with bipolar considerations.
  3. Avoid Isolation: Isolation may cause negative emotional states to linger. Exercise, even in small amounts, and fresh air can lift your mood. Look for free or low-cost community activities that offer a chance to be with others in comfortable social situations. Check your local library for discussions, guest authors or musicians, or short-term workshops, perhaps in computer skills, art or writing. Find community groups that match your interests or concerns and make connections. Take part in events that you feel comfortable with. For instance, if you like to walk, find a local group sponsoring a 5K walk for to raise money for diabetes or autism research. You get the double benefit of connecting with caring members of your community, as well as helping others who are facing life challenges.
  4. Get an accurate diagnosis: Find a qualified mental health professional who you feel comfortable with and with whom you can build a trusting, therapeutic relationship. Develop a plan with the therapist, including medication, if necessary, and lifestyle changes. One of the most important things you can do to keep away a drop in mood due to the pressures of spring is to have a trusted mental health professional who can help you understand and navigate through the spring season.

Spring May Spark Bipolar Mania

If you're bipolar and sensitive to the subtle changes of springtime, then the good that comes with the new season may be not so good, says Russ Federman, a psychologist in private practice in Charlottesville, Virginia and author of Facing Bipolar: The Young Adult’s Guide to Bipolar Disorder.

“The extra daylight, the lifting of winter's gloom and the experience of again being outside in the bright, fresh, springtime air, all serve to activate bipolar neurochemistry,” says Federman. “Not only is springtime arriving on the scene, but potentially, so is hypomania.”

Federman was director of Counseling and Psychological Services at the University of Virginia from 2000 to 2013. He sometimes noticed the changes in students in a bipolar support group that came with the arrival of spring, such as elevated moods and legs that wouldn’t stay still, signs of the elevated mood level of hypomania.

Federman suggests some basic choices that can help maintain a consistent mood for those who may tend toward hypomania as the warmer season settles in.

Guidelines on staying in balance with the onset of spring

  1. Get enough sleep: Avoid caffeine and overly stimulating activities in the evening to encourage adequate nighttime sleep. Stay away from video games in a brightly-lit, noisy environment at night.
  2. No midday naps: It’s more important to establish a consistent bedtime routine and go to bed earlier.
  3. Manage stress: If you've got bipolar disorder, high levels of sustained stress are not your friend. High stress creates vulnerability towards destabilization. It might be final exams or a summer job or a change of residence that can increase spring-induced hypomania is the norm for all individuals with bipolar disorder. But if you do think you may fit within this realm, take appropriate steps to take care of yourself. Stress reduction is different for each of us. For some it involves mediation, yoga or daily exercise. For others, it's a matter of good time management and effective planning.

“Spring-induced hypomania is not the norm for all individuals with bipolar disorder,” says Federman. “But if you do think you may fit within this realm, then take appropriate steps to take care of yourself.”

Spring is too beautiful to have your experience turn things upside down, says Federman. Learn what you can do to maintain a stable mood and “… let the pleasures of spring work for you.”


Hegarty, Stephanie, “Reverse SAD: Why Springtime Can Be Bad for Depression Sufferers,” BBC World Service, May 29, 2011.

Federman, Russ, “Spring Has Sprung and So Might Your Hypomania”, Psychology Today, March 14, 2011.

Federman, Russ, Facing Bipolar: The Young Adult’s Guide to Bipolar Disorder, New Harbinger Publications, 2010.

Federman, Russ, “The 4 Ss of Bipolar Stability,” The Young Adult’s Guide to Bipolar Disorder, New Harbinger Publications, 2010, audio excerpt.

McClanahan, Angela, “Spring Often Makes Symptoms of Mental Illness Worse,” Healthy Place: America’s Mental Health Channel, Feb. 22, 2012.

Ford, Cecilia M., “Spring Depression: The Bluebird of Happiness Doesn’t Live Here Anymore,” Women’s Voices for Change, April 29, 2009.

Pappas, Stephanie, “Springtime Suicide Peak Still Puzzles Scientists,” Live Science, March 24, 2014.

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