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Bipolar Disorder

Spring Has Sprung and So Might Your Hypomania

The relationship between spring and bipolar hypomania

As of 3/13/11, most of the United States, with the exception of the state of Arizona, sprung forward by one hour very early in the morning.

You went to sleep that night and by the next day you were one hour ahead of where you should be. Well no; actually you were where you should be, but while you were sleeping, an hour was lost. If you hadn't gone to sleep and you were watching your time zone on the official world clock, you'd see yours jump ahead by one hour at 2:00 a.m. Don't fret; you'll get it back next November when daylight savings time shifts back to standard time.

The most notable outcome of this annual occurrence is that you get to have more light during the hours that you're awake. Initially there's a sense of something being off or out of synch. It's not an illusion. Your sense of time is a bit off. Instead of starting dinner at 6:00, maybe you start at 7:00 because 7:00 actually feels like 6:00. And instead of your biologic clock starting to move you towards the bedroom at 9:00 or 10:00, perhaps you look at your watch and you're surprised because it's 10:15 and you haven't yet thought about sleep. Again, don't worry, in another few days you'll be back in the groove.

That is, unless you're bipolar and sensitive to the seasonal changes in the amounts of daylight you receive. Some with bipolar disorder are. 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. Not only is springtime arriving on the scene, but potentially so is hypomania.

I've previously noted in this blog that I lead a weekly bipolar student support group at the University of Virginia. Each year at about this time I often observe a couple of students in group whose mood and energy become obviously elevated. At the beginning of group I notice the smiles, the legs that won't quite stay stationary and the ease of spontaneous, contagious laughter that seems to come at the slightest opportunity. Yes, springtime hypomania has just winked its eye at me.

Let's also not lose sight of the fact that the second half of spring semester is a high-stress time for many bipolar students. The end of the semester is only about two months away. If you haven't started your large papers or semester projects you're rapidly approaching a point where you can't delay much further. You're also actively involved in planning for summer employment, internships or even post-graduation options. A lot's going on. And with this all come increased stress and less sleep, which may further accelerate emerging hypomanic symptoms.

Is there any real basis to the notion that bipolar elevated mood is more common during spring... at least beyond the few students I see? There's actually some good epidemiologic research showing a higher number of psychiatric hospitalizations for bipolar mania during spring and summer months as opposed to fall and spring. The one obvious factor that may account for these findings is that spring and summer bring more sunlight and people are more likely to be out in it.

For most of us, this uplift simply feels good. Indeed springtime is often a welcome relief. But if you're bipolar and sensitive to these subtle changes, then good can be not so good. For more on this, see my blog, The Seduction of Hypomania, dated 4/5/10. So what's to be done if you're on your way up due to seasonal change?

Well a few things: It may be time to absolutely insure that you get enough consistent nightime sleep. Stay away from any mid-day napping. Begin to wind down your nightly routine a bit earlier. Be sure you're not using caffeinated products after mid-day. Also try to have your pre-bedtime routine be non-stimulating and under low-light conditions. Sitting and playing video games in a brightly lit, noisy environment isn't exactly good pre-sleep preparation. And if you find that these more subtle adjustments aren't doing the trick, then it may be time for an appointment with your prescribing physician. Adding some sedating medicine before going to sleep for a month or two can be a good strategy to offset the spring of springtime.

Now it's also quite possible that you're bipolar and not relating to this blog at all. In other words, spring doesn't activate you. Good. You've got enough you're already dealing with. I'm certainly not implying that spring-induced hypomania is the norm for all individuals with bipolar disorder.

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 and progress you towards chaos. Hold on to your pleasure so it works for you, not against you.

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Russ Federman, Ph.D. is Director of Counseling and Psychological Services at the University of Virginia. He is also co-author of Facing Bipolar: The Young Adult's Guide to Dealing with Bipolar Disorder (New Harbinger Publications), see

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