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Bipolar Disorder and the Seasons

For those with bipolar disorder, mood cycling (going from extreme lows (depression) to extreme highs (mania)) can be tied to the seasons, among many other factors. There are two types of mania, depending on whether you have bipolar I or bipolar II. The basic difference between the two diagnoses is that people with bipolar I experience full-blown mania, while those with bipolar II experience hypomania. Many people might be more familiar with the connection between mood swings and the winter seasonal change because of the more commonly known condition S.A.D. or seasonal affective disorder as it pertains to the cold, dark, and dreary months. This is a mood-condition in which the shorter days and loss of exposure to ultraviolet light from the sun’s rays can induce symptoms of depression in some people. These symptoms can have a negative bearing on work, school, relationships, and day-to-day functioning. S.A.D. isn’t something reserved solely for people with mood or anxiety disorders, it can affect anyone sensitive to changes in the weather.

However, those of us with bipolar disorder might experience something profoundly more debilitating than S.A.D. during the seemingly comfortless dark days and nights of winter. We may become acutely depressed for days, weeks, or months on end. And just as depression may happen in the winter, on the other side of the seasonal coin, the long days of summertime may evoke an intense bout of mania, an overabundance of light exposure can provoke manic episodes, and, likewise, too little, depressive episodes.

Mania is frightening, not nearly as fun as one might expect. It exists on a spectrum, moving through the stages is seamless, and full-blown mania can sneak up on you in less than a day.

For those like me with bipolar I, hypomania is sometimes the precursor to mania, or even full-blown psychotic mania. Hospitalizations for mania actually peak in the summer because of the increased daylight hours. Other triggers in the summer can include travel, summer holidays, vacations, and weddings, family visits-basically anything that disrupts your normal routine.

The problem with summertime mania, and mania in general, really, is that you start off feeling fine. Great, actually. Fantastic, even!  Amazing! Everything seems to be running smoothly, you feel “on”, “in the zone”, and “brilliant”. …Or at least, I feel that way.  Because when I am in the stages of becoming manic, I become incredibly productive, focused, and articulate. I don’t notice what’s happening. I simply believe I am finally getting my life together.

This stage, hypomania (less than mania), is a danger zone for me because I’ll finally feel comparatively “better” and begin to assume far more obligations and projects than is prudent. I’ll also become suddenly social and agree to attend such events which result in delayed negative repercussions like panic attacks and anxiety-related compensatory behavior. I’ll begin to sleep and eat less, whirling around with more and more frenetic activity. Soon I’m not really getting anything done, becoming both destructive and a danger to myself. My compulsivity and impulsivity escalate quickly, and I find myself doing a lot of things I only realize after the fact.

It’s vital to make a concerted effort to keep bright light exposure at about the same amount of time per day, year round, which is counter-intuitive during the summer, when everybody wants to be outside, doing lots of fun outdoorsy activities. Wearing sunglasses can help reduce the amount of bright light entering the eye which has been shown to have a significant impact on brain chemistry.

Last summer, I spent a lot of time outside in an attempt to ward off the severe depression that I’d experienced the previous summer. However, I did not wear sunglasses regularly and also experienced an adverse reaction to a change in my psychotropic medication. As a result, I quickly became manic with paranoid psychosis. It did build up over a period of time, albeit quickly, but I was too manic already too notice the symptoms by then.

Even though it helps to understand why we often get manic in the summer, it’s still hard to come to grips with it. However, the fleeting good feeling we have usually isn’t real, so we have to remember YES we do need to still take our medicine because YES we are still bipolar and NO the doctor wasn’t wrong when he made the diagnosis just because we are feeling all lovely and hypomanic now. If you’re staying up all night for a week, it is not because you are enjoying what summer has to offer. Just as previously mentioned, if not detected early, full-blown mania escalates quickly and often requires hospitalization.

Signs of mania to look out for:

  • Decreased need for sleep or sleeplessness
  • Dangerous, destructive behavior (self-harming, stealing)
  • Irritability
  • Impulsivity, poor judgement
  • Reckless spending
  • Inability to concentrate, flight of ideas, rapid speech
  • High sex drive
  • Anger/Aggression
  • Denial about symptoms
  • Abusing drug of choice

By learning the signs, writing them down, and then teaching to friends and family to recognize as well, you can help get more control over heading off mania swings as they happen in the future.  Mood cycling is inevitable, but it doesn’t have to get to the point of destructive behavior or hospitalization.

References

Bressert, Steve, Ph. D., “Manic Episode Symptoms.”, Psych Central: 2016, Web. https://psychcentral.com/disorders/manic-episode/

Federman, Russ, Ph. D., “Spring Has Sprung and So Might Your Hypomania.”, Psychology Today: 2011, Web. https://www.psychologytoday.com/blog/bipolar-you/201103/spring-has-sprung-and-so-might-your-hypomania

Hilty, Donald M. et al. “A Review of Bipolar Disorder in Adults.” Psychiatry (Edgmont) 3.9 (2006): 43–55. Web.  https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC2963467/

Jann, Michael W. “Diagnosis and Treatment of Bipolar Disorders in Adults: A Review of the Evidence on Pharmacologic Treatments.” American Health & Drug Benefits 7.9 (2014): 489–499. Web.
https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC4296286/

Martin, Ben.  “Phases and Symptoms of Bipolar Disorder.”, Psy. D., Psych Central: 2016, Web. https://psychcentral.com/lib/phases-and-symptoms-of-bipolar-disorder/

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