Here's Why Late Winter And Early Spring Can Be So Depressing
If you’re feeling incredibly down right now and it’s not caused by something obvious or specific like the news cycle, your relationships, job stress, or something else, keep in mind that this time of year can be a mood-wrecker in general for some people.
It’s not as common as wintertime depression, but depression that appears in the spring is “absolutely real,” said Dr. Paul Desan, associate professor of psychiatry at the Yale School of Medicine.
And it’s not seasonal in the same way as the winter blues, aka seasonal affective disorder or SAD, according to Dr. John Sharp, author of The Emotional Calendar and The Insight Cure. Depression in colder months is closely linked to waning light in the year’s darkest stretch, especially in areas far from the equator. According to Sharp, “reverse SAD,” which is depression in the summer months, is also different from springtime depression.
The reasons for spring depression are less clear, but the symptoms are similar — trouble focusing, low energy, crying, feeling worthless, and losing interest in things you used to enjoy.
Find out why April, along with March and May, can be the cruelest months.
A season of transitions
Spring-onset depression may be due in part to various transitions, such as the end of the school year, ramp-up to graduations in May and June, or relocation associated with the season. “This is disruptive to routine,” said Naomi Torres-Mackie, a clinical psychologist with Lenox Hill Hospital in New York City and head of research at the Mental Health Coalition. “Any time there’s something new to get used to, it can be taxing psychologically.”
And if the spring isn’t living up to the expectations set while you were hibernating and fantasizing, it can be all that more difficult. “I think of it as the spring let-down,” Torres-Mackie said. “Feelings of disappointment can really impact your mood.”
Other stressors in warmer months can also contribute. These include travel expenses and even body-image issues when people wear less clothing, said Dr. Samar McCutcheon, associate professor of psychiatry and behavioral health at The Ohio State University Wexner Medical Center.
Losing an hour
The “spring forward” time change, which occurs in March, may or may not play a role in spring depression.
On one hand, the spike in symptoms at this time of the year was noted long before daylight saving time was established, and it’s been reported in countries that don’t have DST, Desan said.
On the other hand, the increase does represent another disruption. “One hour of difference actually does throw people off a lot longer than one day,” said Sharp, who is also on the faculty of Harvard Medical School and the David Geffen School of Medicine at UCLA.
The time change is associated with other medical problems, especially in the week after. These include more heart attacks, strokes, car accidents, and digestive issues.
The social media effect
Some social media platforms, like Instagram, are filled with images of people socializing and having fun. If you’re one of these people, great. But, Torres-Mackie said, “If you don’t have a lot of social support and you’re seeing a lot of other people gathering but not experiencing that yourself, it can amplify feelings. Feeling down and seeing other people socialize can sting twice as much.”
Depression can also set in when you blame yourself for being outside the norm. “If people start wondering, What’s wrong with me? and have a tendency to internalize, that’s when we really do see depressive symptoms,” Torres-Mackie said.
Symptoms can be particularly acute in the summer. “One of the hardest parts of summer depression is people are expected to be happiest in summer,” McCutcheon said. “This can cause people who experience summer depression to feel especially bad about their depressive symptoms.”
Studies have linked seasonal allergies with spring and summer depression, including one paper that reported worsened moods in a group of about 1,300 people in Pennsylvania on days with high pollen counts in spring and summer, but not in winter.
“The physical body and the connection to mood is strong,” Torres-Mackie said. “Pollen leads to inflammation in the body, and that inflammation can impact your mood negatively.”
The authors of that study noted that allergens spur immune responses causing inflammation not only in the skin and nose, but also in the central nervous system. This can affect neurotransmitters, sleep, memory, and emotions, they stated.
If you’re prone to allergies, Torres-Mackie suggested managing your exposure to different allergens.
Although seemingly contradictory, the surge of energy many people experience as the days get longer may be linked to a higher risk of suicide in the spring. (Experts we talked to and some sources do suggest that suicide rates are higher in the spring, although a 2021 CDC report found that that didn’t seem to be the case.)
“A lot of people become more activated and more energized come springtime, and if they have long-standing depression and any underlying suicidal thoughts or ideation, it increases your risk of suicide because suicide requires action,” Torres-Mackie said. “When you’re very, very low and depressed, it’s harder to complete [suicide].”
Even without suicidal ideation, “A lot of people feel impulsively driven at that time to make some changes that may not be necessary — end a job or relationship, or move,” Sharp said.
It’s not you
Don’t dismiss depression just because it’s happening in the lighter months of spring rather than winter. “It’s important to remember that everyone is different,” McCutcheon said.
“Many people attribute mood changes to being their own fault and don’t always get treatment,” Desan added.
Whenever depressive symptoms interfere with daily life, it’s time to get professional help, Torres-Mackie said. The light therapy that can help with winter SAD won’t help as much during the spring, but a mental health professional — especially one who provides cognitive behavioral therapy, often combined with medications — may help you through the season, Torres-Mackie added.
Keeping a balanced routine, eating and sleeping well, and finding people to talk with can also help keep you on an even keel, Sharp added.
Dial 988 in the US to reach the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline. The Trevor Project, which provides help and suicide-prevention resources for LGBTQ youth, is 1-866-488-7386. Find other international suicide helplines at Befrienders Worldwide (befrienders.org).
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