Now that winter is finally over — despite that surprise dusting of snow that greeted folks Wednesday morning — don’t be surprised to find a little extra spring in your step. It’s only natural, and according to psychologists, is at least partly based in changes in body chemistry brought on by exposure to more light.
Specifically, sunlight makes the body produce more serotonin, a hormone that typically makes people feel better; as opposed to melatonin, a chemical produced at night. Generally speaking, more light equals more serotonin equals a better mood — though there are certainly individual variations in how these substances impact the emotions.
“The light we get from being outside on a summer day can be a thousand times brighter than we’re ever likely to experience indoors,” melatonin researcher Russel J. Reiter of the University of Texas Health Science Center says in a National Institutes of Health article. “For this reason, it’s important that people who work indoors get outside periodically, and moreover that we all try to sleep in total darkness. This can have a major impact on melatonin rhythms and can result in improvements in mood, energy, and sleep quality.”
The article continues, “Whereas high melatonin levels correspond to long nights and short days, high serotonin levels in the presence of melatonin reflect short nights and long days (i.e., longer UVR [ultraviolet ray] exposure). Moderately high serotonin levels result in more positive moods and a calm yet focused mental outlook.”
The seasonal impact on mood is evidenced by the number of people coming to the Queens College Psychological Center, according to its director, Dr. Yvette Caro. Though cautioning that the evidence is not truly scientific, Caro said the center does see more people come in during the winter months.
Jimmy Maniscalco, a doctoral student in clinical psychology at the college, added that the change in seasons can, however, also have a negative impact.
“In particular, the transition from winter to spring can be difficult for some people,” Maniscalco said. “Think of it as a physiological shock.”
Beyond the hormones, another key element that can make people feel an increase in energy when spring comes is a simple increase in human interaction. People get out more often when the weather is comfortable, leading to both positive and negative results.
“They’ve been studying this since the 1800s, and they find definite seasonal variations,” said Dr. Curt Reisinger of the North Shore-LIJ Health System. “I think the explanations are where the issue comes in. Is it really cabin fever, or is it just increased interaction with people?”
While moderate increases in energy and improvements in mood are expected, anything that goes to the extreme and could be the sign of a mental disorder should be examined.
“There are particular disorders that have some sensitivity to seasonal changes, such as depression or mania,” Caro said. “If more daylight causes someone to be more agitated or impulsive, it would be important for them to seek help.”
The college center can assist anyone, not just students, and can be reached at (718) 570-0500. And Caro recommends a mental health hotline, 1 (800) LIFE-NET (543-3638), which help people find services in their area.