The seasons and weather can affect our moods, and for certain individuals, seasonal changes can trigger significant deterioration in mental health. Remain vigilant to spot symptoms early on and plan to manage recurring episodes of mental distress when the seasons change, both for those who are directly at risk and for those who support them.
“Researchers have suggested that our brains developed sensitivity to seasonal change as a survival mechanism during our evolution,” says Sandy Lewis, Netcare's mental wellness coach. Seasonal changes alter our brain chemistry, and for most people the effects are manageable, but anyone with a known history of psychiatric illness could be at risk.
“In winter, shorter daylight hours stimulate the brain to produce more melatonin and less serotonin, which can result in the symptoms of depression emerging in predisposed individuals. In spring and summer, it is the opposite, and more serotonin is produced to the point of inducing mania in some people.
“It is important not to confuse this with just ‘winter blues’ or ‘spring fever’ that many people may experience transiently. For some people, these are severe medical conditions. What started out as adaptation in our distant ancestors to ensure the human species could cope with and live through extreme changes in weather and light, now may be at the root of seasonal mental disorders in certain vulnerable individuals.”
ALL THE LEAVES ARE BROWN
“Traditionally, winter is often associated with metaphorical death and the natural world is at its lowest ebb, which subconsciously can affect how we feel at this time of year.
The dry winter months in South Africa’s summer rainfall regions may also trigger primeval survival anxiety, as water is something we cannot live without.
“Winter may feel depressing for many of us, but clinical depressive episodes are characterised by marked changes such as loss of interest or pleasure in usual activities; extreme fatigue; brain fog; changes in appetite or sleeping patterns; withdrawal and greater sensitivity to social rejection among others, for two weeks consecutively or more.
“For some people moving into spring can trigger other mental wellbeing issues. We expect to feel low in winter, and if we still feel hopeless come spring, it may become unbearable. For others, the exuberance of spring may tip over into mania, where the person often feels ecstatically happy; talks rapidly; is easily distracted or jumps from one subject to another.
DANGERS AND DIAGNOSIS
“A person having a manic episode may have feelings of invincibility, irritability or impulsive desires, which may lead to reckless behaviour. These highs are also soon followed by depression, which may put the person at increased risk of suicide during seasonal changes.”
Previously, seasonal symptoms were classified as seasonal affective disorder (SAD), mostly referring to seasonal depression. More recently, SAD has been classified as major depressive disorder with seasonal patterns. In addition, marked seasonal mood swings are now categorised as a subtype of bipolar mood disorder. The clinical diagnosis for either can only be made if the episode of illness recurs at the same time, coinciding with the change in seasons, for at least two years.