Changing Weather and Changing Moods: the Effect of the Seasons

by Vance Farrell

We as a society have placed symbolic meaning on the different seasons we experience throughout the year to describe the changes that may be seen within or around us. Examples of this can include the use of words like refreshing or spring-cleaning for spring; exploration or freedom for summer; sweater-weather or bountiful for fall; and nostalgic or winter-blues for winter. These differences not only describe the weather within the seasons but can also symbolize a person’s mood or behaviors during these times, especially for seasons with extreme weather differences. For anybody who has experienced a climate with all four seasons, the changes and differences between these seasons can be easily identified and felt, not only physically but emotionally and psychologically as well. Identifying and attempting to manage these changes within oneself can be extremely difficult but can be vital to ensuring a person’s health and safety.  

While mood changes are common depending on the weather and season, there are times when those swings can be more dramatic and should be of concern because of the potential damage they could cause to the person experiencing them. Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD) is the diagnosis that is used to identify those individuals who experience these dramatic and impactful mood changes that can cause impairments to a person’s ability to function on a daily level and can have lasting impacts on their lives. SAD can be split into two different presentations depending upon the season in which the symptoms present, either winter-pattern or summer-pattern with polarized symptoms compared to each other, which can also be said for the seasons they are paired with as described above. Summer-pattern SAD is typically presented with trouble sleeping due to insomnia, a poor appetite that leads to significant weight loss, anxiety, easily agitated effects, and/or episodes of violent behavior. Meanwhile, winter-pattern SAD is typically presented with symptoms including oversleeping, weight gain resulting from overeating (particularly carbohydrates), and social withdrawal from preferred activities or people. The symptoms described for either presentation can have devastating impacts on individuals, their relationships with others, and their ability to function daily. If untreated, it can lead to dangerous situations arising for the person experiencing the myriad of emotions.  

After reading that, you may be wondering why SAD is not more commonly diagnosed within society or why it may be something you may have heard about before, but the specifics about it were not. This is because it is not a disorder all its own; rather, SAD is a type of depression that is characterized by the pattern of presentation with the seasons. This means that in order for this diagnosis to be reached, an individual would also need to present with the necessary criteria to meet the diagnosis for Major Depressive Disorder (MDD), which includes symptoms such as loss of interest in preferred activities, depressed mood, most of the day nearly every day, low energy, feelings of hopeless and/or worthlessness, low energy/fatigue, poor sleep as a result of insomnia or hypersomnia, difficulty concentrating, and/or frequent thoughts of death or suicide. From that list, it is also clear that the symptoms for either pattern of SAD draw from directly from MDD but also differ in the symptoms experienced, similar to that of the seasons that they have an associated relationship regarding their presentation.  

Taking all of that into consideration, treatment for such a diagnosis follows a very familiar path to MDD and other depressive diagnoses that can be found. The use of medications may be necessary depending upon the severity and frequency of the symptoms presented by somebody to assist with managing potential chemical imbalances within their brain or hormones. Therapy is another tool that needs to be considered to assist with the development of coping mechanisms to help manage their symptoms when they start to become worse or more frequent. However, the presence and support from those closest to the individual can play the most important role. These are the people who could help identify the symptoms when they start and assist in managing or combatting the symptoms when they do arise. 

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