Mood Changes with the Seasons

The bad news: the temperature is becoming unbearably hot again, and insects are coming out in full force.

The good news: Your mood is improving despite this.

Such is the reality of the summertime. In fact, research shows that mental health is heavily impacted by changes in season.

Many people suffer from a downward shift in their mood during the fall and winter every year — a psychological condition known as SAD, or seasonal affective disorder. People with SAD experience “depression, hopelessness, anxiety, loss of energy, [a] heavy, laden feeling in the arms or legs, social withdrawal, [and] oversleeping,” with symptoms becoming more severe as the seasons progress.

Although there is no conclusive evidence to identify the cause of SAD, it is generally explained by three main factors: changes in the biological clock, and serotonin and melatonin levels. One’s biological clock may be able to detect reduced sunlight in the fall and winter, which may impact one’s sleep cycle. In simpler terms, the body expects to rest when it is darker outside. Additionally, the amount of serotonin in the body, a chemical tied to one’s mood, can decline in the absence of sunlight. Melatonin levels, another chemical associated with one’s sleep cycle, can also shift as seasons progress, thereby contributing to oversleeping and sluggishness.

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But SAD isn’t the only disorder with symptoms tied to the seasons. A San Diego State University study concluded that the number of Google searches pertaining to mental health problems rose in the wintertime, suggesting that symptoms associated with disorders are exacerbated during that time. The study assumes that searches are based on the needs of the people conducting them, and is, therefore, a way to gage the seasons’ bearing on mental health.

Common search terms were “anxiety, bipolar, depression, schizophrenia, and suicide.” John W. Ayers, the professor who spearheaded the research, was actually surprised that so many disorders aside from SAD were searched in Google. The subsequent report explains that, “very few studies have assessed how seasonality may exacerbate other mental illnesses.”

On the flip side, summer does wonders for your mental wellbeing.

A Harvard newsletter from 2010 details the positive effects of being outdoors. People are more likely to exercise outdoors, for example, which reduces stress and anxiety, releases endorphins which elevate one’s mood, and boosts one’s energy.

Children with attention deficit hyperactivity disorder, or ADHD, have an easier time concentrating after time spent outdoors.

Interestingly, a similar study from the University of Michigan also found that people who remained inside when the weather was agreeable also experienced a downward shift in mood. On the other hand, when the temperature is warm and the sun is out, 30 minutes of outdoor activity drastically improves one’s mental health – and summer is an ideal time to do so.

So, what’s the takeaway message? There’s a reason why you may have felt down and out in the winter, and millions of people were in the same position as you. Summer is the time when our mood improves, so we should all take advantage of it!

Carimah Townes

photoContributing Author

Carimah Townes is a Special Assistant for ThinkProgress. She received a B.A. in political science from UCLA, where she also studied cultural anthropology. While in school, she served as a festival planner and interned with the Office of Mayor Villaraigosa. Before joining ThinkProgress, she worked for the National Center for Lesbian Rights and interned with the Communications and Development teams at Vital Voices Global Partnership.

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