Spring represents renewal; it connotes baby lambs skipping over green grass, flowering bulbs, and - for some - a spot of cleaning. Naturally, many of us experience a mental high as we enter this season of growth after the darkness and decay of winter.
However, both scientific and anecdotal evidence has suggested that seasons can alter mental state beyond conscious control. Research shows that spring, in particular, is associated with positive mood peaks.
Seasonal affective disorder (SAD) is characterised by annual episodes of depression, typically during winter, which improved during springtime. Other symptoms include fatigue and a tendency to eat too many carbohydrates.
If that sounds like your typical "winter blues", that could be because you do not have to have a mental disorder to have SAD, University of Canterbury Student Health councillor Rob Ritchie says.
Researchers at the American National Institute of Mental Health found evidence of seasonal differences in dopamine (a chemical messenger involved in motivation, pleasure, movement and learning). Their results showed environmental cues that changed seasonally, such as sunlight, could alter the brain state of healthy people, and this could contribute to "winter sluggishness" and "summertime pep".
Mental Health Foundation (MHF) mental health promoter Steve Carter says springtime always makes him feel "a whole lot better about the world". "As spring comes, we get those beautiful days and suddenly you feel like this is the start of a new season. Blossoms appear on the trees. There's a kind of flush of energy," Carter says.
Young people are particularly vulnerable to SAD, and Ritchie says cases at Student Health were "pretty predictable every year". "We hear about this a lot. As we enter May, there's always a spike in the number of people we see for seasonal mood change, and [during spring], people seem to recover. We are creatures that do have something of a hibernating habit."
Carter agrees that mental health fluctuates with the seasons, although he is reluctant to use labels. "One of the dangers of labelling things is it makes it feel extreme, and it makes it more difficult for people to seek help, because there's all that stigma out there, and often they won't access help simply because they worry about being labelled.
"I would encourage people to realise that we all have ups and downs".
Data on the seasonality of Google searches also supports the widespread existence of SAD, according to a study published this year in the American Journal of Preventive Medicine. The research showed that Google searches about all major mental illnesses and related problems followed seasonal patterns similar to those of seasonal affective disorder.
If you're the type of person that feels a bit gloomy when winter comes around, MHF director of policy and development Hugh Norriss encourages people to look after their mental health throughout the year, to build "resistance".
"There's a lot people can do to stabilise their mood and play a bit of a preventative role, as with physical health. There are things you can do regularly to build a bit of resistance and reduce that risk."
- © Fairfax NZ News