Our brains manage a wide range of emotional and psychological functions. They use a sensitive and intricate system of chemical signals and responses sent via the central nervous system. A number of environmental and congenital factors can affect this system. Changes in brain chemistry can cause significant changes in a person’s mood.
The Environment’s Impact on Brain Chemistry
The world around us affects our internal balance. Changing seasons, longer or shorter days, colder or warmer temperatures and other weather changes impact our moods, thoughts and actions. The environment can unbalance individuals with no history of mental illness. When a person struggles with a preexisting issue such as bipolar disorder, changes can have an even greater impact on emotions.
What Is Bipolar Disorder?
Bipolar disorder is a mental health condition that, as the National Institute on Mental Health explains, “causes unusual shifts in mood, energy, activity levels, and the ability to carry out day-to-day tasks.”1 It may or may not involve severe manic symptoms and depressive episodes. There are several types of bipolar disorder, and each involves different symptoms and degrees of each symptom. Any type of bipolar disorder can be affected by changing seasons and the environment.
Brain structure, genetics and family history can all play a role in the development of bipolar disorder. This mental health issue most often develops during a person’s teen years but may not appear or be diagnosed until much later.
The following are a few signs and symptoms of a manic episode:
- Increased energy levels
- Elevated good mood
- Irritability or agitation
- Racing thoughts and speech
- Aggressive or abusive treatment of others
On the other end of the spectrum, people may experience depressive episode symptoms like the following:
- Emotional numbness
- Decreased energy
- 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
Both manic and depressive episodes may be accompanied by substance abuse. In fact the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA) reports that “30 percent to more than 50 percent of people with bipolar disorder (bipolar I or bipolar II) will develop a substance use disorder (SUD) sometime during their lives.”2 Substance abuse can mask signs of bipolar disorder. SAMHSA continues, “This co-occurrence complicates the course, diagnosis, and treatment of SUDs.
However, treatment for bipolar disorder and SUDs is available, and remission and recovery are possible — especially with early intervention.” While bipolar disorder cannot currently be cured, mental health professionals have made great strides in minimizing its effects and helping individuals learn to actively manage their emotional health. This usually involves a combination of medical care, counseling and learning to manage emotional triggers such as changes in season and weather.
Why Do Seasonal Changes Affect Mood?
When the seasons change, our actions and feelings change too. Environmental factors impact our emotional and physical health. When the seasons change, so does the following:
- Our exposure to daylight
- Our physical activity
- What and how we eat
Everyone is a little sensitive to changes in season. Some people experience seasons more significantly. 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.
The return of spring, longer days, fresh air and sunshine may cause symptoms of mania in individuals who have bipolar disorder. This relationship between seasons and mood can be reversed or experienced differently—but no matter the form it takes, weather and time of year do impact bipolar disorder symptoms.
As the Journal of Affective Disorders found, “Individuals with bipolar disorder experience greater seasonality than those with depression or healthy controls. Even the non-seasonal bipolar group had as much seasonal fluctuation as the seasonal depression group, which has important implications for the management of bipolar illness.”3 Not only do seasons affect mood, they affect mood more for individuals with bipolar disorder than those with other mental health concerns — even ones directly related to seasonal changes.
Mental Health and Addiction Recovery
If you are experiencing extreme emotional changes as the seasons change, or if you have previously been diagnosed with bipolar disorder and are concerned that the effects of changing seasons may be increasing your symptoms, please call our toll-free, 24-hour helpline today.
We offer experienced, compassionate information about mental health and addiction treatment, and we’re here for you anytime you need us. Please reach out today at 844-768-0308.
1 “Bipolar Disorder.” National Institute on Mental Health. Accessed 8 Aug. 2018.
2 “An Introduction to Bipolar Disorder and Co-Occurring Substance Use Disorders.” Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration. 2016.
3 Shin, Karen, et al. “Seasonality in a Community Sample of Bipolar, Unipolar and Control Subjects.” Journal of Affective Disorders. May 2005.
David W. Newton is a board certified pharmacist and also has been a board member for boards of examiners for the National Association of Boards of Pharmacy since 1983. His areas of expertise are primarily pharmaceuticals as well as cannabinoids. You can read an article about his expertise in CBD on the National Library of Medicine.
Reviewed by: Kim Chin and Marian Newton