What I’ve learned — through extensive Google searches and discussion with friends who are also diagnosed with various illnesses — is that the effects of seasonal changes are rarely ever talked about, yet can be so debilitating to our health. Every year, in March and October, I’m on the verge of hospitalization because my illness can’t keep up with all the changes going on in the weather around me.`
Now, I want to be clear. Seasonal affective disorder (SAD) is a form of depression that comes out during seasonal changes, but that’s not what I’m talking about. I’m talking about chronic illnesses that last year-round yet are still massively affected by certain times of the year.
For example, I have bipolar disorder, and every March and October, I have a hard time. However, since no one really talks about the effects of seasonal changes, I always assumed it was a fluke — a mere coincidence. Then, after experiencing it four years in a row and realizing the pattern, I pulled out the handy-dandy Google search and found that having flare-ups during seasonal changes is so common.
Whether someone is diagnosed with a mental illness, chronic illness or anything in-between, seasonal changes can be hard for us. For me, it causes depression or mania, which usually comes out in the scariest form of mixed episodes, when symptoms of mania and depression coincide.
So, while everyone around me hypes up fall and spring every year, I find myself dreading it, because it’s a really hard time for me each year. Despite my efforts every year, I know that no matter how hard I try, I’m bound to become symptomatic again — and I do try really hard! It’s definitely not an issue of me not putting in the effort.
And according to what I’ve learned over the years, there are actually scientific reasons for these flare-ups.
1. When seasons change, it may alter someone’s internal sense of time due to darkness staying longer in the mornings and coming earlier at night. This not only might lead to a lack of vitamin D but could also disrupt your circadian rhythm, bringing on more depressive symptoms or hopelessness. It might be harder to get out of bed and do the things you need to do. For people with mental health issues, that can quickly lead to a significant problem in daily functioning.
2. In many people, serotonin is affected by sunlight. As there’s less sun, your serotonin levels might decrease, which could lead to more depression, anxiety and hopelessness, none of which are fun when you already experience them on a daily basis year-round.
3. While not listed, for me, the unpredictability of the weather has a huge effect. I like knowing what to expect each day, and when the weather goes from 20 degrees when I wake up to 50 degrees when I walk out of work, it really throws my body out of whack and can put my mind into chaos mode. It probably doesn’t make sense to most people, but I’ve found it’s pretty common with my friends with bipolar disorder too.
4. seasonal changes are a stage of change and transition all around us, and I don’t know about others, but nothing messes me up more than change and transition. Even if it’s a good change — such as my favorite season quickly approaching — it can be really overwhelming and lead to a lot of extra stress. And if I don’t properly address that stress, it can actually lead to crisis or hospitalization.
This season, talk to your friends diagnosed with various illnesses and ask them for their experience. If I had to bet, seasonal changes affect them too — at least, to some extent. Let’s talk about that more.