Seasonal Effects on Mental Health

Have you ever noticed your mood changing with the seasons or the weather? Some people might find themselves getting lethargic, irritable, or melancholic during rainy season or the winter months. Similarly, people often experience increased energy levels when the weather is sunny and warm.

Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD) is a type of depression correlated with seasonal changes.  Many individuals who experience SAD develop symptoms around the same time each year, which usually coincides with the fall and winter months, coining its’ nickname “winter depression”. SAD is quite prevalent in countries where winter is long, cold, and dark, such as Finland or Iceland.shutterstock_187378241 (2)

Mood changes associated with SAD often include sadness, irritability, and even anxiety.  Additionally, one might lose interest in activities that the individual would usually find enjoyable; experience carbohydrate cravings, weight gain, increased sleep with daytime fatigue, as well as difficulty concentrating.

It can be difficult to differentiate SAD from other types of depression due to the overlap in symptoms. However, with SAD these symptoms are usually limited to the months between September and May and individuals experience this pattern for at least 2 years in a row. Additionally, there is usually a close relative who has also had SAD.

On the brighter side, SAD sufferers do not merely have to wait out the winter months to experience symptom reduction. Treatments typically include medication, phototherapy (light therapy), as well as Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT). Phototherapy utilizes an artificial bright light to mimic natural light to influence brain chemicals, which in turn affects individual’s moods. Through CBT, the therapist works with the client to help identify and change negative thought patterns and behaviors that may reinforce negative mood states.

shutterstock_113875279 (2)There have also been reports about the sudden onset of other psychological disorders during the winter months. A recent article by Agata Blaszczak-Boxe discussed a rare case of “seasonal OCD”. The woman in the article experienced intrusive thoughts related to contamination and rituals involving repetition for 10 years only during the winter months. Her symptoms would first appear in October and disappear completely by April or May. The woman was prescribed medication but her symptoms were not completely resolved until after trying a combination of CBT and daily phototherapy

It is unclear why mental disorders get worse for some people as the seasons change. Some experts believe that the lack of sunlight disrupts the body’s biological clock and can influence the release of seratonin, affecting a person’s mood. Seratonin is a neurotransmitter found in the human brain that has been linked to mood, sleep, and memory among other things. Other experts say that people are more isolated during the winter months, which might lead to worsening of depression and other mental disorders.

To learn more about Seasonal Affective Disorder, go to the Mayo Clinic. To read the story of the woman with seasonal OCD, click here.