How Seasonal Changes Affect Bipolar Disorder

The human brain manages a wide range of emotional and psychological functions through a sensitive and intricate system of chemical signals and responses in the central nervous system. A number of environmental and congenital factors can affect the balance of a person’s brain chemistry, which can, in turn, cause significant changes in that person’s mood.

Changing seasons, with longer or shorter days, colder or warmer temperatures, weather changes and increased or decreased time spent outdoors can cause mood changes in otherwise healthy individuals. For people wrestling with bipolar disorder, however, these seasonal changes can cause dangerous emotional swings.

What Is Bipolar Disorder?

Bipolar disorder is a mental condition that causes a person to move between times of major depression and elevated mood or mania. It can be caused by trauma, substance abuse or hereditary factors and usually first affects people during their teen years. In order for a person to be diagnosed with bipolar disorder instead of major depression he or she must experience at least one manic episode in addition to depression.

The following symptoms are often associated with bipolar mania:

  • Irrationally good mood
  • Irritability
  • Reckless or impulsive behavior
  • Aggressive or abusive treatment of others
  • Heightened sexual behavior
  • Sleeplessness
  • Substance abuse

On the other end of the spectrum, or “pole”, these people suffer from the following symptoms of major depression:

  • Emotional numbness
  • Persistent sadness or crying
  • Sleeping too much or too little
  • Marked changes in appetite and eating
  • Self-imposed distance from friends and loved ones
  • Suicidal thoughts or actions

While bipolar disorder cannot currently be cured, mental health professionals have made great strides in minimizing its effects and helping affected individuals learn to actively manage their own emotional health. This usually involves a combination of medical care, counseling, and helping these people to recognize their emotional triggers. Seasonal changes are a major trigger for many bipolar individuals.

Why do Seasonal Changes Affect Mood?

The following environmental factors have been shown to have a major effect on emotional health:

  • Exposure to daylight
  • Physical activity
  • Dietary changes
  • Rain
  • Storms
  • Cold

Most people are at least somewhat sensitive to these changes, but some can be significantly affected by them. Winter months, with their shorter days, colder temperatures, frequent storms and limited outdoor access can give some people a case of the “winter blues” and can cause severe and even dangerous depression in others. Individuals who experience depression as a result of these seasonal changes may be diagnosed with “seasonal affective disorder.”

However, the return of spring, longer days, fresh air and sunshine may cause symptoms of mania in individuals who are actually suffering from bipolar disorder.