Springing From One Mood into Another: Is the Sun at Fault?

Not all enjoy the extended daylight hours.

Posted Mar 22, 2017

The blizzard arrived two weeks before the official start of spring, but people interviewed on the local TV news channel were stoic and relatively calm. “Spring is coming,” many of them said, as they lugged their bags of groceries to the car along with bags of de-icer. “It will be all over soon.”

They were referring to the discomfort of a major snowstorm followed inevitably by icy winds and slippery sidewalks, but they also may have been referring to the winter mood that descends around mid-November along with the first heating bill. And it is true. Even though visible spring with its flowers, magnolia blossoms, and ducklings usually arrives at least four to six weeks after calendar spring, there is a perceptible lightening of mood by mid-March, in part due to longer daylight hours. Indeed, in my city, where people rarely spontaneously start conversations with strangers? A small amount of chitchat with a passing pedestrian over an emerging crocus, or newly arrived songbird indicates a positive Spring-like mood.

The warmer weather (that will arrive even if much delayed) is partly responsible. But the longer hours of sunlight may be a more potent force in getting rid of the winter doldrums. Many have suffered from the winter blues, or in its more severe manifestation Seasonal Affective Disorder ("SAD"), since the fall. Fatigue, loss of interest in social activities, increased food intake, increased sleep and irritability have been unwelcome symptoms associated with the long hours of darkness. These symptoms lessen by the arrival of the vernal equinox, i.e. Spring, and are often gone by the beginning of summer. 

The mood replacing SAD, or the Winter blues, almost seems like mania-lite. Long hours of sleep are replaced by earlier awakenings and energy replaces lethargy. Mental fog vanishes along with the excessive food cravings, and enthusiasm for new activities gets people out of bed and out of the house. Interestingly, people who manage to go south for a couple of weeks during the winter report the same almost instantaneous change in mood after exposure to longer bouts of sunshine.

Weight loss is one of the positive effects of the disappearance of the winter blues. It is much easier to follow a diet in the spring only because seasonal fruits and vegetables seem so much more appetizing than the dull root vegetables and apples of the late fall. The absence of Seasonal Affective Disorder removes the insistent cravings for sweet junk food, and salads and strawberries become more attractive than Twinkies.

Exercise seems easier to do as well, due to an increase in vigor and maybe the realization that sweaters will have to be removed in a month or so.

So springtime is much to be desired. Right? Well, not for everyone.

The good mood that most anticipate along with the snowmelt may be too much of a good thing for some. Hypomania or mania often appears in the Spring; symptoms can include poor appetite, anxiety, insomnia, irritability, poor impulse control, and lack of focus. The early symptoms are enticing as described by those who experience them: increased self-esteem, being more talkative than usual, a mind filled with creative ideas, and energy-driven ambitious goals. Unfortunately, the lack of sleep, as well as poor eating habits coupled with agitation and irritability become obstacles to normal functioning.

And if they are severe, these symptoms of hypomania can require medication and/or hospitalization. The hypomania or mania may be one component of bipolar disorder, and appears cyclically along with bouts of depression. But Spring can elicit these mania-like symptoms without the accompanying depression at some later interval.

Suicide seems to peak in the spring, according to a review by Woo, Okusaga and Postoache (Int J Environ Res Public Health), although some studies have shown this to occur later in the season, when the days are much longer than calendar spring. But even though the rise of suicides is predicted with the coming of Spring, very little is understood about why this should be so. Scientists have proposed an increase in depression because of the high pollen counts and allergies, the discomfort to some of warmer weather, and even the contrast between the many public celebratory events of the spring such as graduations, weddings, and/or reunions, that may be coupled with personal feelings of despair and depression.

Anecdotal reports confirm the disparity between sunny skies, warm weather, the beauty of air filled with floating fruit tree blossoms with an inner darkness, with a sense of despair, and retreat from the world. Some clinicians have begun to call this negative Spring mood, “reverse Seasonal Affective Disorder.” But naming the condition doesn’t explain it. Some have suggested increasing exposure to darkness as a means of alleviating the symptoms. Making the bedroom as dark as possible to prevent early morning light from causing awakening too early, avoiding mid-day sun when it is the strongest, and always wearing sunglasses outside are methods offered to prevent this spring depression. Does it work? There really aren’t any studies to say whether it works better than being exposed to normal amounts of light.

A wise friend who was extolling the benefits of daylight saving time because he loves coming home in daylight, was surprised when I mentioned that some people become more depressed in the Spring. “Maybe it is hard for people who carry their depressed mood with them into Spring to be around others who throw off their grumpiness and bad mood like their winter coats when spring comes..." he theorized. Depression is isolating and may seem even more so when suddenly the outside world is full of people enjoying the balmy temperatures and feel of the sun on their faces, and you are too depressed to leave your home.  

It is unfortunate that this most ephemeral of seasons, which always seems to come too late and leave too early, brings with it to some, a depression and despair or an overactive euphoria. But I would like to imagine that those who dread the impact on their mood from the lengthening of the days, will still welcome cessation from high winds, ice, slush and snow.