Celebrating Summer, Anticipating Winter: Why Our Moods Shift With the Seasons
On the occasion of the first day of summer, one of my FaceBook friends asked: “Do you have anything regarding why solstices and equinoxes can be difficult for bipolar?”
Following is an expanded and reworked version of my answer …
We are very much creatures of seasonal cycles. Kay Jamison, in her 1999 Night Falls Fast, notes that, “like other mammals, our patterns of eating, sleeping, and other physical activities sway with the seasons, varying in accordance with changes in day length and temperature.”
Most of us are familiar with winter depressions. From an evolutionary biology standpoint, our very survival depended on our ability to go into partial hibernation at certain times of the year. Literally, we needed to slow down, stay close to the cave, and conserve energy.
There is also the phenomenon of summer manias. The game changed with the onset of warm weather. Whether gathering berries, hunting for mammoth, dancing under the moon, or adding a man cave to your cave, Mother Nature primed our ancestors for adventure.
In certain climates, though, winter could be invigorating and summer stop us dead in our tracks. The point is we were built to respond to seasonal change. Modern living may have distanced ourselves from a large part of this, but never underestimate the sheer persistence and determination of Mother Nature.
An estimated one in five of those with bipolar suffer from seasonal effective disorder. The rest of us definitely feel the influence.
Internally, our brains respond to the changes between light and dark. The brain’s master clock - the suprachiasmatic nuclei - readjusts. Melatonin and serotonin levels change. We also have body temperature to consider. These variables all affect the body’s ability to regulate itself and reset to normal - a process called homeostasis.
All systems are connected, so somewhere down the line mood is affected. Even if we do not experience a full-blown episode, we may certainly feel a sense of unease, like something in our clockworks has gone horribly wrong.
If winter is your depression season, the shortening of the days probably fills you with a sense of dread. Add your own personal variation. Maybe summer is your bad time. The equinox, the solstice - the bell tolls for thee.
Walk into any support group, talk to any bipolar buddy, and one of you is sure to bring up the topic. Fear is our motivator, preparation our friend. We learn to adapt any way we can. We modify our schedules and routines. We invoke various light therapies If we have the money and free time, we get the hell out of Dodge.
Summer is here. What is going through your mind, right now?
Further reading …
John is an author and advocate for Mental Health. He wrote for HealthCentral as a patient expert for Depression and Bipolar Disorder.