“it’s spring when the world is puddle-wonderful.”
So wrote the poet E.E. Cummings. Or at least it’s supposed to feel that way — with the grass greening, trees and flowers blossoming, bunnies hopping and birds chirping. Spring isn’t a harbinger of hope and happiness for everyone, though.
According to John R. Sharp, MD, a psychiatrist and professor at Harvard University and author of The Emotional Calendar: Understanding Seasonal Influences and Milestones to Become Happier, More Fulfilled, and in Control of Your Life, spring may bring out quite the opposite feelings in some of us: namely depression, anxiety, stress and the symptoms that tend to travel with these conditions, like fatigue and sleep troubles. So if you’re in recovery, it’s important to be aware of these not-so-springy side effects.
Research shows that hospital admissions for mood disorders rise now and depression tends to worsen for those who suffer from it. And while it may sound counterintuitive, suicide — a major health problem, with 800,000 people globally taking their own lives each year, say stats from the World Health Organization — is at its peak in springtime. According to a study in Comprehensive Psychiatry, suicide rates are highest between March and May, and lowest between November and January. Why? The study authors theorized the additional sun exposure that increases levels of the neurotransmitter serotonin in the brain might make people more impulsive. While serotonin is mostly thought of as a mood-booster, some experts believe that it first lifts motivation and then later improves mood. So it could be that more sunshine initially makes someone feel more energized (and perhaps better able to plan and carry out a suicide attempt) but no less depressed.
There may be other factors at play, too. “Frequently, people with depression are focused on the hope that an improvement in their external circumstances, such as a change of seasons, will improve their mood,” says Denee Jordon, PsyD, a psychologist based in Los Angeles. “When this isn’t the case, they may feel disappointed and more hopeless. People may feel that they ‘should’ feel better with the season change, and when they don’t live up to this expectation, they feel shame and despair.”
Even if you’re feeling down (or worse) as the season kicks off, rest assured that these feelings won’t last, at least not for most people: It’s the onset of the season where the difficulties come in, Sharp says. “We can feel really renewed by the coming of spring,” he says, “but it doesn’t start that way. It comes with a restless energy that can be distressing.” Put another way, that “spring fever” feeling isn’t always a welcome one. It can make “you feel an inner sense that ‘I need a change or do something or run out of here,’” explains Sharp. “A lot of times that can cause people to make the mistake of getting overly frustrated on the job or in a relationship and feel like some kind of change is required. Really what’s required is just to understand that this is normal and you want to try to harness this energy and look forward to it, becoming more harmonious and synchronized and put it to good use towards a goal.”
So if you’re feeling the world is a little less than wondrous right now, don’t beat yourself up about it. And try some of these simple measures to take care of yourself this time of year:
- Know yourself. “When you think of your ’emotional calendar,’” says Sharp, “think about your reaction to physical cues like light and temperature, your reaction to cultural cues —expectations of how we’re supposed to be feeling this time of year — and your own personal, past experiences. [These factors] really teach you a lesson about what you’re likely to feel like this time of year,” says Sharp. “None of that has to doom you,” he stresses, “it’s just a question of understanding how it is for you in a particular season, such as early spring.” So if you’re someone who typically feels down or restless after a long winter, that’s a pattern to be aware of. “Finding out how you’re likely to feel by looking back, and looking forward, is in your best interest, realizing this is all understandable and something a lot of people share and something seen epidemiologically and scientifically when we look at the human condition,” says Sharp.
- Go easy. If a burst of energy feels more unsettling than thrilling, proceed with caution. Everyone responds a little differently to the seasonal shift, Sharp says; some people need to sit tight, some need to get busy, some need to get away. If you’re fragile around this time of year (or during seasonal changes generally), you may need to avoid becoming overly enthusiastic and overdoing activities you’d normally find pleasurable, like exercise, shopping or diving into a new project at work. Instead, pace yourself, setting realistic goals to work toward. Although you may feel there’s a lot you should get done now, like spring cleaning or getting back to regular workouts, don’t weigh yourself down with unachievable expectations. Make a to-do list that’s realistic, and work on it a little each day.
- Beware of temptations. Longer days and higher temps combined with feeling a little over-stimulated or off-kilter can make it easy to jettison your regular schedule. Focus on the basics and make them the priority now: good food, plenty of sleep and exercise as well as reducing stress where you see opportunities to do so.
- Stick to your plan, if you’ve got one. Maybe you put together a recovery or relapse prevention plan following rehab, or your therapist gave you a program to follow. If you’re feeling low or more vulnerable to triggers now, this is the time to turn back to that plan of action to see what you might need to step up to get more support through the transition to spring. Maybe it’s adding another meeting or two to your weekly schedule, or checking in with your sponsor, counselor or a supportive friend. Simply being aware of the effect that a change of seasons can have on your emotions — even those seasons that are supposed to be unequivocally positive — may enable you to approach this shift with, well, a little spring in your step. And if not, hold on: Summer’s right around the corner.