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Coping with Seasonal Patterns & Bipolar

If you feel a shift in your mood as the seasons change, you’re not alone. Many people, whether they have bipolar disorder or not, are affected by the changing of the seasons. You may notice changes in your sleep, activity level, and mood. While the mechanisms by which these changes occur are still being studied, you may adapt your treatment plan to help cope with these transitions.

Many individuals with bipolar disorder experience depression during the fall and winter months. Episodes of hypomania and mania typically coincide with spring and summer. Alternatively, you may experience the opposite pattern and feel high energy during winter and low mood during summer. The important fact is that each person has a unique pattern. Recognizing and documenting your pattern is the first step in ensuring you take care of yourself during a seasonal shift.

Seasonal shifts affect the amount of sunlight we get each day. Sunlight has proven to have a direct effect on our circadian rhythms, otherwise known as our sleep-wake cycles. If you live in Canada, more sunlight in the spring and summer months may make you feel alert and awake for longer.

Alternatively, less sunlight during fall and winter may make you feel fatigued. Changes in sunlight also affects our activity levels. With longer days in the spring and summer, we may feel more energy to complete tasks and activities we enjoy. Shorter and colder days during the fall and winter may encourage us to stay home more often. Although we may feel more active in summer and less active in winter, we must maintain a healthy routine of activity and enough sleep.

Sleep is one of the most important factors in maintaining a balanced sleep-wake cycle. If you have difficulty sleeping in the summer, or you feel you sleep too much in the winter, there are a few things you may do to try and get back into a routine. First, try to go to bed at the same time each day, followed by waking up at the same time. This may take some getting used to, but you are re-training your brain and body to adjust to a schedule. Try black-out blinds for the summer or a dimmer light in the winter to help you either fall asleep or wake up.

While sleep is one of the most important components to maintain your health during seasonal shifts, there are a few other steps you may take to engage in self-care during these transitions.

  • Be PROACTIVE. It is easier to cope with seasonal shifts if you are already engaged in a stress management plan. With a plan in place, you are not reacting to the seasonal shift and then trying to put a self-care plan into action once you already start feeling symptoms. Prevention is key. Begin to track your mood and symptoms each day so that you familiarize yourself with your unique pattern.
  • PRIORITIZE. Choose activities that support your routine. You may have to put off large projects or responsibilities until the next season when you know you might feel better. For example, some individuals try to plan their heaviest work commitments to happen during the months they know they typically feel the best.
  • PLAN ahead. If you know that winter usually brings symptoms of depression, plan activities that help you take care of yourself. Maybe try to get outside for at least 15 minutes a day to get sunshine. Or plan a coffee date with a friend once a week. Planning events in advance also helps us stay accountable and have something to look forward to.
  • PACE yourself. Set realistic goals. If you plan to do something every day during the winter to ensure you stay active, this may be too much. Start small and celebrate your successes in achieving your goals.
  • PARTNER up. Do you have a friend or loved one who can help you stack on track with your routine? Involving someone you trust can help you maintain your plan. Everyone can benefit from a stress management plan to help cope with seasonal shifts.

Remember, you may feel mood and activity shifts during the changing of the seasons or you may not. Each person is different and will therefore require a unique plan to help manage symptoms. Although we may not be able to change when the snow flies or when the sun shines, we can take action to take care of ourselves during the changing of the seasons.

References: Geoffroy, P. A., Bellivier, F., Scott, J., & Etain, B. (2014). Review: Seasonality and bipolar disorder: A systematic review, from admission rates to seasonality of symptoms. Journal of Affective Disorders, 168, 210-223. doi:10.1016/j.jad.2014.07.002

Vanessa Collins

Vanessa Collins

Bipolar Support Group Intern Student