Cincy Science: UC clinical psychologist explains why thoughts of spring put a spring in our step

CINCINNATI - Ever ask, "What is that?" Or, "Why is that?" In our new "Cincy Science" feature, we talk with people who can answer those questions: The folks who do science in Cincinnati and the Tri-State.

If the thought of spring brings an instant smile to your face, you may not be alone.

The weather affects our moods and overall attitude more than we know. To shed a bit more light on seasonal depression, we consulted assistant professor of psychiatry, UC College of Medicine's Charles Brady.

As a clinical psychologist at the Lindner Center of Hope , he explained it's not uncommon to see people experience a sense of elation or despondence depending on the season.

Q&A with clinical psychologist Charles Brady:

1. With warmer weather just around the corner (we hope), why do we tend to get excited about Spring?

When we talk about getting excited we are talking about a feeling. To understand why we have certain feelings we have to consider a number of factors. Three big factors we look at the most are thoughts, actions and biology.

As spring approaches we tend to have positive memories of warm weather, nature blooming, upcoming vacations and other experiences that help get us excited for this soon to arrive season. This anticipation fuels an improved mood. Think of how you feel when you are thinking about a long awaited vacation. You feel the pleasure of it well before it actually arrives. We also start to change our behaviors.

The warmer weather allows us to be more active. We move around more, we exercise more, we see more people and this increased activity level tends to improve our mood. And lest we forget, biology is a major player in this equation. As we anticipate pleasurable experiences, the brain chemistry changes and the brain releases neurotransmitters that deliver the first dose of the pleasure before the experience happens. Also, we now have lots of evidence that increased physical activity and exercise has a strong biochemical boosting ability for our moods.

2. What is the physiological reason behind excitement regarding seasons. What controls this type of response in the brain?

In addition, the brain chemistry changes due to increased physical activity and positive anticipation, as the winter fades and spring emerges there is more daylight. The shortened periods of daylight in the winter disrupt our circadian rhythm, changing our internal sleep clock and making us feel like we need more sleep. Also, in the winter the lack of sunlight causes our brain to produce less serotonin.

With less serotonin available our mood tends to decrease. In addition to changes in serotonin, melatonin is also associated with shifts in seasonal moods. In the darker days of winter, melatonin levels are higher and high melatonin levels have been linked with seasonal depression. However, low doses of melatonin supplements have been shown to reduce the impact of seasonal affective disorder by improving sleep. So when winter shifts to spring and we start to have more daylight, the brain responds with higher serotonin and lower melatonin levels and our biological clocks shift in a way that make us feel like we need less sleep.

3. Is there an increased amount of depression in the winter months?

There is evidence of an increase of a specific type of depression in the winter that is called Seasonal Affective Disorder. This is a depression that a person experiences repeatedly at the same time of year, typically late fall through the winter. In North America, studies have estimated the rate of seasonal affective disorder to range between 1.4 and 9 percent.

4. What role does light play in our moods?

Light, or lack of light, appears to be the main culprit for seasonal depression. I suppose you could say the increased hours of sunlight in the spring is the hero who helps bring us improved moods and excitement. Some experts think that the lack of sunlight experienced by people in the winter hinders the absorption of Vitamin D which then leads to increased risk of a biochemical game of dominoes that results in seasonal depression.

5. Does temperature also effect how we feel mentally?

Temperature plays a part, but it does not seem to have as strong a role as light. In some areas of the world there are increases in depression that occur during the periods of high heat and humidity in the summer, and it is thought that it is the extreme temperature and humidity that is partly responsible.

6. How large a problem is seasonal depression?

Some studies suggest that as many as 9 percent of the US population suffers from seasonal affective disorder. It is important to realize that seasonal depression can be just as severe as depression not caused by the seasonal shifts. Untreated, seasonal depression can lead to increased alcohol and drug abuse, difficulties fulfilling roles at work and in the family, and in the most severe cases may lead to suicide.

7. What kind of treatments are used for seasonal depression?

Seasonal affective

disorder can be treated effectively by medications used to treat depression. In addition, psychotherapy has shown to help treat the symptoms of depression caused by seasonal affective disorder. In addition, light box therapy has also proven effective to treat this condition.

Light box therapy is a treatment in which the individual sits in front of a specially designed bright white light lamp for a brief period daily, during the time of year when they are impacted by the condition. As with any type of depression, I would strongly encourage anyone suffering from it to see their doctor to get advice on the best treatment for them.

8. Are people actually happier in warmer, sunnier climates as a whole--say Los Angeles or Miami versus Seattle or Anchorage?

Although you might think this is the case, there is no strong scientific data to support this. However, we do know that seasonal affective disorder tends to be more severe as you get farther away from the equator, and thus have less sunlight in the winter.

But interestingly, in the The Legatum Institute’s 2013 survey,  Norway, Sweden, Canada were deemed to be the happiest countries in the world. Now if those countries could move to the Caribbean, I personally suspect that they would be even happier.

9. What types of things can we personally do to shake off the winter blues?

In addition to the formal treatment that I mentioned above, there are many things we can do to prevent the winter blues. Frequent exercise is one of the most scientifically proven methods to help prevent and reduce depression. Also, spending more positive time with friends and family will have a big impact. I also suggest people use the benefits of positive anticipation and plan something that they can look forward to in mid-winter. Doing so will not only improve your mood while you’re doing that activity, but it will enhance your mood as you look forward to its arrival.

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