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Erratic Weather, Erratic Mood? What to Know About Spring Fever

Spring is full of changes. Here's what to know about spring-time euphoria and how to tell you need help for mood changes.

Jessica Rendall Wellness Reporter
Jessica is a writer on the Wellness team with a focus on health technology, eye care, nutrition and finding new approaches to chronic health problems. When she's not reporting on health facts, she makes things up in screenplays and short fiction.
Expertise Public health, new wellness technology and health hacks that don't cost money Credentials
  • Added coconut oil to cheap coffee before keto made it cool.
Jessica Rendall
7 min read
One sunflower is taller than the others on a spring day
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If you are having thoughts of suicide, or someone you know is in immediate danger, you should call 911 (or your country's local emergency line) or go to an emergency room. Explain that it is a psychiatric emergency and ask for someone who is trained for these kinds of situations.

Dr. Norman Rosenthal, a clinical professor of psychiatry at Georgetown University Medical School, called on a drizzling, gray day from Maryland to talk about spring euphoria. Rosenthal was the first person to describe seasonal affective disorder (SAD), depression that comes with changes of season, typically winter, and he pioneered light therapy as a treatment for it. 

In the beginning of the phone call, he thought the weather, which was in stark contrast to the beautiful weather earlier in the week, clashed with the topic at hand: spring-time mood.

"Then, I realized that's part of the trouble with spring," Rosenthal mused. "Yesterday it was just gorgeous, and maybe it will be tomorrow or the next day, but it's up and down."

We talk a lot about the health impacts of daylight saving time and low moods during winter, but the energizing, and sometimes erratic, effects of spring deserve some digging too. For many, especially those who live in more seasonal areas of the world where there is a dramatic shift from winter to warmer weather, and those with seasonal affective disorder, that first gust of spring air can bring with it a big burst of energy, improved mood and even mild feelings of euphoria. It's not a medical term, but we can also call it "spring fever." 

As someone who grew up in the Midwest and now lives on the East Coast, I've always counted on those first few days of spring to boost my mood and re-energize me. To me, that shift from dark to light, bitter-cold to sunny-defrost feels like the first few sips of coffee combined with warm sunlight hitting your face. And judging by the number of people who are suddenly inspired to clean their homes and our natural draw to sunlight as human beings, I know I'm not alone. 

But like spring, our moods and our reasons for them are far from straightforward, according to Rosenthal, who noted it's not as easy for everyone as "it was dark, now it's sunny; I was sad, now I'm glad." Not only can feeling euphoric during that first warm week indicate a mental health condition that needs attention, such as bipolar disorder or other mood disorders, but the up-and-down nature of spring can bring with it other factors that impact our mood, like changing relationships, changes in day length and more.

"These things all have to be accommodated by your biology and your psychology," said Rosenthal, who's also the author of the book Defeating SAD

A little kid stomping in a puddle in rain boots
FluxFactory/E+ via Getty Images

Why you might feel energetic at the beginning of spring 

Spring comes with more opportunities for sunlight exposure for many people. As humans, we're biologically wired to benefit from sunlight, and our sleep pattern or circadian rhythm depends on it. When we get the right amount of exposure to sunlight, we tend to be better off physically and mentally. (As long as you protect your skin and eyes, of course.) 

"Sunlight in the spring time certainly makes a difference," said Dr. Natasha Bhuyan, an Arizona-based family physician. Sunlight improves our mood in a couple of different ways, she said. 

"The sun actually can help decrease levels of melatonin, so we don't feel as sleepy during the day," Bhuyan explained. "The sun can also help increase the neurotransmitter serotonin," she added, which is known as a "feel good" chemical. 

Additionally, extra sunlight, especially in the late afternoon as people are getting off work or out of school, makes us more social and even more likely to exercise -- two separate factors that can boost mood, according to Bhuyan. 

Now, it's time to fold in some nuance: some people may report feeling more happy or more significant mood shifts in the spring compared with others because of their individual biology. They may be coming out of their symptoms of SAD, which is seasonal depression brought on by winter in most cases (not all).

Additionally, some people are prone to experiencing more intense mood swings, or their transmitters may be more sensitive to serotonin because of depression, Rosenthal said. 

"In people with a bipolar tendency, a lack of light is depressing," he explained. "An expansion of light is activating." 

Rosenthal noted that "bipolar tendency" in this context does not only mean people with clinically relevant bipolar disorder, but others who experience more up-and-down moods and may be "more susceptible to the spring than the run of the mill." 

"With every mental state, it's a matter of degree," Rosenthal said, adding that how it impacts the quality of your life is what's important.

"The euphoria is good or bad depending on how marked it is," he said. "For most people, I would say, it's a welcome increase in energy and mood and something to celebrate." 

Read more: Getting Morning Sunlight Improved My Sleep: Here's Why You Should Too

Why you might feel 'off' in the spring 

If you just read all that good news about the sunlight and its positive impact on our mood, but you're longing for more morning sunlight or still reeling from that March clock adjustment, you're not without merit: There are some negative health impacts associated with daylight saving time, many of them related to that hour of sleep we lose and sleep deprivation's trickle-down effect.

There are also reasons to prefer it lighter sooner and darker earlier, depending on factors like your family's schedule and preferences -- negating all "euphoric" feelings of warm weather and later sunsets spring for some. 

Another reason someone's mood may be negatively impacted in spring is what Rosenthal alluded to earlier: the ups and downs of the weather and the way we're trying to follow our natural environment. For example, someone who needs it may not use their light box or therapy lamp because it was super-sunny yesterday, despite it being a dreary day today, he explained. 

"It can be a little bit discombobulating," Rosenthal said. 

Bhuyan agrees with the dramatic weather spring can pull and its effect on some people. 

"Abrupt shifts in weather can really affect people's moods as well," she said.

SAD isn't limited to winter as the only time it shows up to affect people's mood; summer SAD can also greatly impact people's moods. And for people who experience depression or other symptoms during warmer months, whether it be spring or summer, they may have less support because people have a weaker understanding of what's going on. For example, people who experience SAD in the summer may sleep less instead of more, and feel more irritable or restless compared to what's "typical" during winter

"For a lot of people who have seasonal affective disorder in the spring, it's even more isolating because it's not as well-recognized," Bhuyan said. 

A happy woman in a yellow T-shirt throws up her arms
M-imagephotography/iStock/Getty Images Plus

When euphoria is a problem

For people with bipolar disorder or another mental health condition, sunlight or spring can trigger mania, which can include an explosion of energy, ideas, racing thoughts, and extraordinary plans or actions that may or may not be harmful to you. You may feel extremely irritable or extremely happy. 

Research shows that suicide rates are higher in the spring and summer; not during darker, colder times like winter, as we may expect. In addition to mania and its link to suicide and depression, there's also some information to suggest inflammation and allergies associated with spring and depression may be a contributing factor. Experts have also theorized that the emphasis on social interactions and relationships during spring and summer may also play a role, and those who feel depressed or agitated during warmer months may feel like they're missing out

But the reasons behind the pattern aren't entirely clear. "That tells me there is clearly some deeper link to mental health issues," Bhuyan said of the lack of definitive research. 

In terms of when a re-energized or euphoric spring mood may warrant more attention or help from a mental health provider, Bhuyan and Rosenthal identified a few of the same "red flags" that suggest you could benefit from a management or treatment plan. Here's what to look out for:

Lack of sleep: If you're skipping out on sleep because you don't feel like you need it, or you're too restless to rest, this signifies a problem.

You're irritable: In addition to extreme feelings of elation, happiness, euphoria or feeling on top of the world, there can also be an "irritable quality" to the lows of spring-time mood, Rosenthal said. 

Other people are commenting: If you're buzzing around with a shocking new plan you have for your life, you're talking at a pace people can't understand, you're up until 4 a.m. cleaning or anything else out of the ordinary, people close to you may start saying something. If they do, listen to them, as this is one of the most important signs euphoria or happiness may be more extreme and warrant some assistance from a medical professional.

And if a friend or someone you know is acting out of the ordinary, don't hold your tongue out of fear of making them mad or hurting their feelings. 

"Make sure to mention it to them, because they might not notice it themselves," Bhuyan said. 

Impulsive decisions: Spending a ton of money, making a big life choice that you typically wouldn't make or other choices that are "out of the blue" may also mean you're at risk for mania, Bhuyan said. 

These are just a few flags for experiences that warrant attention from a health care provider; other things besides spring or season changes can trigger mania or a mental health crisis. If you're considering suicide, or you're thinking of carrying out an act that could hurt you, call 911 or tell a person near you so they can assist you in getting help or calling emergency services. According to information from the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health, a suicidal crisis where someone is at heightened risk of dying can be very short -- a matter of hours or even minutes, making immediate help crucial. 

The information contained in this article is for educational and informational purposes only and is not intended as health or medical advice. Always consult a physician or other qualified health provider regarding any questions you may have about a medical condition or health objectives.