THE NUANCE

The Science of Spring Fever

Why this time of year can trigger feelings of pleasure, pain, or a bit of both

Markham Heid
Elemental
Published in
5 min readApr 1, 2021

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Illustration: Kieran Blakey for Elemental

Spring is a season of rebirth and renewal. Flowers sprout, leaves bud, and the natural world wakes up from its long winter hibernation. Likewise, a lot of people feel rejuvenated as the days grow longer, sunnier, and warmer.

But for some, the transition from winter to spring can be a rocky one. “Some people shift into their springtime mode smoothly, [but] others battle with this transition, suffering the volatility of ‘spring fever’ for a month or more before settling into a calmer summer state,” says Michael Terman, PhD, a professor in the department of psychiatry at Columbia University and president of the nonprofit Center for Environmental Therapeutics.

Terman says that springtime feelings of renewed energy and exuberance are often counterbalanced by periods of despondency or discombobulation. The season can even trigger a kind of temporary manic-depressive disorder. People experience “rapid shifts to high and energetic mood and behavior punctuated by shifts down low, feeling wiped out and despondent,” he says.

Why does any of this happen? The operation of the body’s circadian clocks, which govern everything from mood and appetite to hormone production and immune functioning, can help explain why springtime throws some of us such a curveball.

How springtime can disrupt our rhythms

Every cell and system in the human body contains a clock. These clocks, like the ones on our phones or wrists, keep time and operate on a (roughly) 24-hour cycle. And they’re primarily regulated by daylight. More than any other time of the year, springtime can knock these circadian clocks into disarray.

During the cold, relatively lightless days of winter, Terman says that people tend to sleep longer, eat a bit more, and experience higher levels of daytime fatigue. For most, these “winter lows” are mild or hardly noticeable. But for others, they’re so pronounced that they induce a form of depression known as seasonal affective disorder (SAD). Spring fever, though less studied, may be SAD’s “clinical cousin,” he says. “With the arrival of spring and…

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Markham Heid
Elemental

I’m a frequent contributor at TIME, the New York Times, and other media orgs. I write mostly about health and science. I like long walks and the Grateful Dead.