Can you track your upcoming mood swings simply by looking at the calendar? If so, you are not alone. Seasonal changes can trigger your bipolar disorder symptoms especially during the winter and spring.
According to the director of psychiatry at the University of Michigan Depression Center in Ann Arbor, patients with bipolar disorder often report feelings of intense depression during the winter followed by manic episodes in the spring. Many counselors also report seeing an increase in the number of people seeking helping during the winter and spring.
These seasonal changes in mood are directly related to the amount of sunlight they receive. The shorter days in January result in less sunlight, triggering depression, and patients are often destabilized again with the increased daylight in May resulting in mania and hyperactivity. This has led some mental health professionals to refer to it as the “manic month of May”.
Is It Seasonal Bipolar or Seasonal Affective Disorder?
Even if you experience severe depression during the winter, this does not necessarily mean that you are suffering from seasonal bipolar disorder.1
The medical director for the National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI) and an assistant professional at Harvard University Medical School, Ken Duckworth, MD stresses if you do not experience the manic highs during the spring or have a history of them you probably do not have bipolar disorder.
So, why do you feel sad when the seasons change?
Seasonal affective disorder (SAD) is characterized as a mood disorder that is triggered by a lack of sunlight. According to the American Psychological Association, it is more common in northern regions where the long winters and short days result in dramatically less sunlight. Patients suffering from seasonal affective disorder will often experience the same feelings of depression as those with bipolar disorder, only they won’t have manic episodes in the spring.
Seasonal Mood Shifts: Who is Affected?
Frontiers in Psychology published a study in 2015 that theorized seasonal mood shifts were caused by a disruption in the body’s natural circadian rhythms.
This refers to the body’s internal clock that follows a rhythmic response to the changes in sunlight during a 24-hour period. Basically, this is what tells you it is time to sleep at night and stay awake during the day.
The study theorizes that a specific set of genes are responsible for controlling the body’s rhythmic response. If the genes are abnormal, your risk for developing seasonal bipolar disorder might be higher. This is especially true if you already suffer from SAD.
It is important to remember that this is only a popular theory, and not scientific fact. If you have additional questions, there are certified online counselors available during and after normal office hours.
Help for Bipolar Disorder and Seasonal Depression
If you know that your bipolar depression is coming with the chilly weather there are some steps you can take to help lessen and manage your symptoms. This can be especially important after the holidays when bipolar disorder depression is usually the most severe.
You should always speak with a medical health professional if you feel that your seasonal depression is more than you can manage. If you can’t wait for an appointment there are certified professional counselors and therapists available online for immediate help. I have found this to be particularly helpful, especially when my seasonal depression gets severe.
Here are a few tips to help you control your depression throughout the year.
- Exercise. Studies have shown that it is possible to manage mild seasonal bipolar depression by combining exercise with your regular medication. Not only will this help you improve your physical health, it can also boost your mood.
- Keep a routine. When you keep a schedule throughout the year, it might be possible to regulate your body’s rhythms. This can help improve sleep quality and lessen depression.
- Melatonin. If you are dealing with severe depression melatonin might be added to your medications. This chemical transmitter occurs naturally in the body, but changes in hormonal levels can cause it to stop making it.
Before you reach for an over-the-counter bottle of melatonin, research published in the 2012 edition of Expert Opinion on Investigational Drugs noted that medications that help regulate the body’s production of melatonin might be more effective at treating seasonal bipolar disorder and SAD.
- Vitamin D. The body manufactures Vitamin D naturally when you are exposed to sunlight, but this can be difficult in the winter. Some researchers have linked a Vitamin D deficiency with depression, and adding a supplement to your daily diet could help you better manage your symptoms.
- Reduce stress. According to NAMI stress is one of the most common triggers for bipolar moods swings. It is also thought to be a contributing factor in the onset of SAD. If seasonal bipolar disorder is a problem, the APA recommends avoiding making any sudden changes in your daily life until the spring. Meditation and careful planning are two great ways you can reduce stress.
Bipolar Disorder and Spring Mania
The start of spring usually means relief from seasonal depression, but if you have been diagnosed with bipolar disorder you’re probably bracing for hyperactivity and manic episodes.
There are a few extra steps you can take when the weather starts to warm up that can help you manage “spring mania”.
- Sleep. It is important that you are getting plenty of sleep at night during the spring. Setting a sleeping schedule before the warm weather arrives is an effective way to establish a routine. Having structure in your life can help you manage manic episodes.
- Have a plan. The winter is the perfect time to sit down and create a plan for the spring. It can include anything from cleaning out the garage to finally starting a garden. Having projects planned will give you a positive outlet for your excess energy, along with a sense of accomplishment when you are finished
- Recognize your patterns. Learning to recognize the patterns that could trigger a manic episode is one of the best ways to prevent one. Many licensed therapists recommend keeping a daily journal so you can go back and see what triggered a bipolar disorder mood swing.
Hope for Seasonal Bipolar Disorder
Even though it is unrealistic to think that you can have complete control over your seasonal bipolar disorder all the time, there is still hope!
With careful planning, plenty of support from your network and by regulating your body’s circadian rhythm it is possible to lessen your seasonal depression, and channel your spring mania in a positive way.2