ARC Blog

The Pendulum of Seasonal Change

Understanding the Connection to Anxiety

The Anxiety and Depression Association of America reveals that around 18.1% of the US population suffers from anxiety. There is a wide range of reasons that can trigger anxiety. Some of these include culprit genes, a stressful situation or as a side effect of some medication. Anxiety also pairs closely with depression and both plant seeds of dementia.

The seasonal ticking clock that turns leaves from green to gold also has a significant role to play. It chips in anxiety that comes when some fret about the upcoming winters or seasonal change altogether. A more specific term for such anxiety that is backed by the pendulum of seasonal change is Seasonal Anxiety Disorder (SAD). Other common terms used for such a mental health concern are seasonal depression and winter blues.

What are Seasonal Anxiety Disorders?

The National Institute of Mental Health defines Seasonal Anxiety Disorders as, “a type of depression that comes and goes with the seasons, typically starting in the late fall and early winter and going away during the spring and summer.” While summer depression is prevalent, it is not as typical as the winter blues.

A Google report confirms that all mental illnesses get worse during the winters. It also shows that the searches concerning psychiatric issues and anxiety peak during the winters. For instance, the searches related to suicide decline by 24% in the US during the summers.

In Northern Europe, the seasonal affective disorder takes approximately 12 million people within its folds. Annually, there are around 5% of folks in the US that experience seasonal depression. 4 out 5 of these tend to be women. Moreover, an extra 10-12% of US citizens suffer from mild episodes of winter blues.

Seasonal Swing and Patients with Psychiatric Disorders

Although MCI symptoms may only be the first step to mental health issues, the seasonal sensitivity may take a toll here too. For patients with psychiatric disorders, seasons can worsen their plight. 64% of people with a diagnosed mental disorder complain about deteriorating symptoms with seasonal changes.

A case in point is people with anxiety who find their condition worsening with the weather. The seasonal impact extends to make them feel claustrophobic, which hits the notes of cabin fever for anxious individuals. Also, air molecules exhibit a tightness in winter that poses a strain on breathing normally. Such a factor, however, induces panic in patients with anxiety disorder.

With the onset of winter, people with anxiety face increased mood relapses and greater irritability. This is paired with changes in their sleep cycles. Research also indicates the people with panic disorder become more fragile with changes in seasonal factors.

Weather changes make matters difficult for patients with Bipolar Disorder (BPD) too. Two relevant implications surface as the season dons a different temperature. These are manic and depressive episodes. Manic episodes culminate in impulsivity, insomnia, and high-energy. On the other hand, BPD depression resembles with clinical depression except that it may be more volatile.

Seasonal change impacts the occurrence of these episodes. Clarissa Silva, a behavior scientist, elaborates. She says, “The biological effects of a lack of sunlight can produce disruption in sleep cycles, decreased and depressed mood […] the changes in the season and temperature are mirroring the changes in their bodies that help adapt to the climate change which can exacerbate and manifest as manic and depressive symptoms.”

Symptoms of SAD

Seasonal sensitivity yields several symptoms. Manfred Kaiser holds changes in the temperature, air pressure, and humidity responsible. He sums up the effects as, “increased irritability and aggressiveness, anxiety, depression, listlessness, fatigue, lack of concentration, sleep disorders, headache and migraine, heart and circulation irregularities, nausea, dizziness, scar pain or phantom pain, and rheumatic pain.”

The winter pattern of SAD shows signs such as hypersomnia, weight gain, carbohydrate craving, low energy levels, and overeating. Social withdrawal also characterizes winter blues. On the flip side, the less common face of summer SAD show symptoms like agitation, anxiety, insomnia, and restlessness. A poor appetite that leads to weight loss and amped up occurrences of violent behavior are also common.

Causes of Seasonal Anxiety

There is a consensus that the scale of anxiety aggravates as a person moves upward from the equator. This emphasizes the role of sunlight as a cause of SAD. A change from summer to winter translates into disruption of the circadian rhythm, which is the internal human biological clock.

It is disturbed as the hourly distribution of the daylight and night time change with seasons. Days tend to shorten during the winter and are accompanied with longer nights, which confuses the biological clock. This triggers anxiety along with disturbed sleep schedules.  

Additionally, the decline in sunlight may affect serotonin levels in an individual. Serotonin is a neurotransmitter that impacts mood. Lower serotonin levels are associated with depression and anxiety. Brain scans reveal that people with SAD in the winter exhibited lower levels of serotonin.

Furthermore, melatonin markers also have a role to play in the seasonal anxiety. Melatonin is a hormone that determines sleep mood and patterns and is produced in dark hours. As the daylight is limited during the fall and winter season, melatonin production swells. This sleep-regulating hormone also implicated the internal biological clock. During seasonal swings, the internal clock fails to fall in sync with the external clocks climaxing in unusual sleep patterns. Subsequently, birthing anxiety.

Individuals who experience SAD sleep 2.5 hours more in the winter than in the sunny season of the year. These people sleep 1.7 hours more in the winters relative to 0.7 hours of increased zzz fetched by the general population.

At the same time, shorter days cannot keep up with the long list of activities to accomplish. Limited daylight hours also leave little time for social meetups and gatherings. These add as other secondary causes of SAD.

Key Takeaway

Seasonal changes exacerbate the mental condition with patients with anxiety and other mental disorders. However, the impact doesn’t halt here but grows to sink its teeth in other people to cause anxiety. It is essential to take essential steps to manage stress and anxiety as the seasons alter.

Erica Silva is a blogger who loves to discover and explore the world around her. She writes on everything from marketing to technology, science and brain health. She enjoys sharing her discoveries and experiences with readers and believes her blogs can make the world a better place. Find her on Twitter: @ericadsilva1


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