Spring’s Seasonal Change Poses
Risks for Recovering Addicts
Did you know that seasonal change can trigger addictive behaviors and substance abuse?
While many people may be aware that depression is often linked to the winter months, far fewer realize that the transition to springtime presents its own risks to mental health and addiction recovery.
Rainy Days and Mondays
Excessive rainfall can quickly sour the mood of a mentally healthy person, but it can wreak havoc on those already struggling with depression and/or substance abuse, triggering a relapse.
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Research indicates that 43 percent of people in treatment for non-medical use of prescription painkillers have been diagnosed with a mental illness, particularly depression and anxiety. People who are depressed are more likely to abuse illicit substances as a sort of coping mechanism. Which is why those in addiction recovery – especially those with a history of depression – must be extra vigilant on rainy days.
Dr. Edmi Y. Cortes Torres is a behavioral health expert at the University of Miami Health System and medical director of the University of Miami Hospital Inpatient Psychiatry Unit. She’s well aware of the effects of seasonal change on mental health.
“People with a history of mental illness and depression can have an increased frequency or intensity of depressive symptoms whenever the weather is gloomy,” she says.
Seasonal allergies can also trigger depressive behavior and substance abuse. Recent medical studies have documented a relationship between allergies and a wide range of mental health problems, including substance use disorder (SUD). Many of the symptoms typically associated with seasonal allergies — headaches, sleeplessness, fatigue — are also symptoms of depression. According to The New York Times, “Several large studies have found that the risk of depression in people with severe allergies is about twice that of those without allergies.”
One reason is because allergic reactions release compounds in the body called cytokines, which have been known to cause inflammation and anxiety, while also reducing serotonin levels. The end result is a general lack of well-being.
As if that weren’t enough, environmental toxins also play a role. In the springtime, blowing winds and warmer temperatures can stir up toxic irritants that can cause inflammation in the brain and trigger bad moods.
When Hope Doesn’t Spring Eternal
While springtime may be the season of hope for many, it appears to be the season of hopeless for those who are depressive. It is, in fact, the peak season for suicides.
A 2012 comprehensive study published in the Scandinavian medical journal Acta Psychiatrica Scandinavica confirmed that, for both Northern and Southern Hemispheres, suicides increase during spring and early summer – especially for men and older individuals.
Some experts believe that more suicides occur in the spring because the warmer weather provides the extra energy needed to pursue a suicidal plan. Energy which this same individual may not possess during the winter months.
Renowned psychiatrist Norman E. Rosenthal agrees that people suffering from winter depression often lack the initiative to kill themselves. On the other hand, spring and summer depressives are more likely to possess a dangerous combination of energy and desperation.
Tips for Brighter Days
If your mood tends to downshift during rainy weather, what can you do? You may be tempted to shut off all the lights and crawl into bed. But that would actually be counterproductive.
Research indicates that light can boost serotonin levels, so it would be better to turn the lights on instead. (Many psychiatrists offer light therapy to help patients cope with seasonal change.)
At the very least, it’s best to expose yourself to whatever daylight is available by walking outside, even when it’s cold and rainy. This will help regulate your body’s circadian rhythm and boost your mood.
What if it’s raining cats and dogs? If you must opt to stay indoors, try to engage in pleasurable activities that make you feel good. Watch a cheerful movie, play a game, work on arts and crafts, or read a book.
You may also be tempted to isolate yourself during rainy weather. That would be another mistake, according to clinical psychologist Tecsia Evans. “When people are by themselves, it can feel like things are worse than they really are,” she notes.
Lastly, don’t let the weather get you down—get up! Exercise is a huge energy booster, Evans says. “It gives people vitality, can [contribute] to self-esteem, and increases endorphins that have a positive effect on the mood.”