Do Seasons Affect Bipolar Disorder? Supporting a Loved One Through the Holidays

The changing of the seasons and the holidays can be difficult for someone with bipolar disorder. Whether it is the stress of the holidays or the darkness and changing of routine, a loved one might struggle even more. It is important to recognize this and support them. This can include helping them get comprehensive mental health treatment.

The holidays can be a strange time for everyone. We all know about the stress of gift-buying, arranging to see families, the crowds and the noise, but for some, there is a more deeply unsettling aspect to the month. The lights and the happiness stand in stark contrast to the shorter, darker, and colder days. We have less light, so we try to create our own.

For many people, that’s a wonderful thing: a cheerful ward against the cold winds. But for people with bipolar disorder, that contrast can be overwhelming and triggering. Seasons affect bipolar disorder, as the biological impacts of less sunlight have a physical impact on the condition, and the overall stress and joy of the holidays can bring on a depressive mood.

We all know the holidays can be alienating and difficult. But if your loved one is suffering from bipolar disorder, they can be particularly depressed and may be difficult to be around. But you can support them. You can take steps to help them establish a routine and physically combat the impact of the darker, colder days.

In the end, comprehensive therapy is the best way to make sure that your loved one is able to navigate the holidays successfully. That navigation is something we all have to do, and helping someone with bipolar disorder is another way we stand together against the darkness.

How Holidays Affect Bipolar Disorder

Before we get into the physical and biological impacts of the changing of the seasons, it’s important to keep in mind the elevated stress levels that come with every holiday season. Holiday anxiety poses real mental health risks. We all get a little stressed: old family feuds linger in the background, minor gift-related slights from yesterday appear like Dickensian ghosts, and you know you’re going to have to smile as your aunt gives you yet another loaf of her rock-hard soda bread.

All of that stress, however, can pile up and make bipolar disorder even worse. It works in two ways.

  1. The cheer of the holidays can make them feel alienated, as if they are the only people who are unhappy. This dredges up deep questions of self-worth and fitting in.
  2. The competition and stress of the holidays can trigger obsessive tendencies, a reduced sense of self-worth, and pain from feeling like they are going to let people down.


All of this is enough to very easily bring on depressive episodes. Your loved one, already prone to questioning their value to others or their ability to be more like everyone else, is faced with what seems like the starkest of all contrasts.

One easy thing you can do is to constantly remind them that they aren’t alone: we all feel holiday stress, and no one ever feels like they’ve really gotten it right. Remind them that we’re all in this weird boat together. That’s not a panacea in and of itself, but it’s a start.

How the Changing of the Season Affects Bipolar Disorder

Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD) is a real thing, and far more prevalent than most people realize. If you say something like “I just cannot get out of bed when it is this gloomy,” the issue might not be just a matter of coziness. Your biological rhythms are genuinely thrown for a loop during the darkest days of the year.

As many as 20% of Americans suffer from SAD or other seasonal mood disorders. Extreme symptoms of this include feelings of hopelessness, intense fatigue, avoidance of social situations due to increased fear of rejection, and even thoughts of suicide.

You can see that these are similar to your loved one’s depressive states. And while SAD is different than bipolar, and while there is no evidence that a person with bipolar disorder is more susceptible to SAD, there is no doubt that any form of SAD can develop into a full-blown depressive episode.

But the truth is that your loved one doesn’t need an actual seasonal mood disorder to feel the gloom of the season. The short days and chill winds can be triggering by themselves, especially in northern latitudes.

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How to Support Your Loved One During the Holidays

Winter holidays, no matter your tradition, are about supporting each other. They are holidays infused with love and fellowship, a cheerful candle against the darkness. In the same way, you can support your loved one get through the season.

There are a few things you can help them do:

  • Help them maintain a routine. The changing light throws us all off, but it is extremely important for a person with bipolar disorder to maintain a regular routine, especially a regular sleep routine.
  • Exercise. We all find it harder to exercise these months, but it is especially good for a person with bipolar disorder to keep their blood flowing and energy levels up. Finding a way to exercise together also helps them feel like they aren’t the only ones who need it (because, let’s face it, they aren’t!).
  • Reduce stress. Don’t make your loved one feel like they have to bring this cake or those gifts to the party. Make sure they don’t feel like the weight of the holiday’s success rests on their shoulders. If this means cutting back on your elaborate plans, that’s ok. You’ll probably be happier too.
  • Make use of light therapy. Encourage and help your loved one to get light therapy, which can counteract the biological impact of less sunlight.
  • Increase melatonin/vitamin D intake. This does the same thing, and helps decrease fatigue.

Really, the most important thing you can do is talk to them. Remind them that the only important thing is to be together. Gifts, latkes, whatever: you don’t need that, not really. You’re all in this season together. The best gift you can give is simply to be there for them.

The Importance of Comprehensive Therapy

Seasons come and go. Spring can bring hypomania as easily as winter brings depression. Moods can be measured by the calendar. Even as help your loved one stave off the worst effects, the world keeps turning.

That’s where comprehensive therapy comes in. Bipolar disorder doesn’t have a cure, but its symptoms can be managed through comprehensive residential care that understands the physical and psychological causes and effects of the disorder.

Helping your loved one find a program can change their lives. And they aren’t in it alone, either: the best programs believe that family involvement is critical to long-term success, which is another way you’ll be able to help your loved one get through not just the holidays, but every season.

The holidays can be stressful. The days are short and the nights come early, borne on a biting wind. But we can all light candles. We can all brace each other against the cold. We can help our loved ones with bipolar disorder not just get through the months, but light a joyful candle of their own.

If you’re concerned about a loved one and believe they may need residential care, we can help. BrightQuest offers long-term treatment for people struggling with complex mental health illnesses and co-occurring disorders. Contact us to learn more about our renowned program and how we can help you or your loved one start the journey toward recovery.