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Spring fever is real. And it’s a mess

This is your brain on sunlight

As restrictions loosened in the state, diners on Newbury Street made the most of the spring weather.


 Suzanne Kreiter/Globe Staff
As restrictions loosened in the state, diners on Newbury Street made the most of the spring weather. Suzanne Kreiter/Globe StaffSuzanne Kreiter/Globe staff

Perhaps it started with finally cleaning out the junk drawer. Or maybe you simply resolved to clean out the junk drawer. And the closet. Heck, might as well tackle the basement, attic, garage, and your car’s glove compartment, which is so full of Dunkin’ napkins and expired Jiffy Lube coupons that you’re afraid to open it.

Or it could manifest in another way: planning. Big planning. Revenge planning — a chance to get back at winter; a chance to get back at COVID — and you find yourself staring at your wife across the breakfast table and emphatically asking: “Why haven’t we road-tripped to Tierra del Fuego?”

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If you have any or all of these symptoms, you may be suffering from a surge of restlessness — triggered by a reacquaintance with a curious phenomenon known as sunlight — called spring fever. With the clocks moved forward an hour and daylight stretching past 12 hours, the annual phenomenon has arrived in full, fidgety force. Over the weekend, people gathered on the Boston Common and along the Esplanade to bask in the sun, savoring a long-awaited escape from the doldrums of a pandemic winter.

“Spring fever is a real thing, which often comes on the heels of the shift to daylight saving time and is marked by an uneven exuberance, where you can feel a little too revved up,” said Dr. Norman Rosenthal, a psychiatry professor at Georgetown University School of Medicine who first described the winter depression known as Seasonal Affective Disorder.

Spring fever has not found its way into the diagnostic manual of the American Psychiatric Association. But there is strong evidence that many people experience a marked mood shift in spring, which is tied less to warmer weather than an increase in average daily radiation, courtesy of that glowing orb that is now strangely high in the sky, even if it’s not delivering much heat. The increase in outdoor sunlight correlates to elevated levels of the mood-lifting chemical serotonin in the body, said Dr. Kathryn Roecklein, an associate professor of psychology at the University of Pittsburgh.

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Roecklein, who studies the extreme ends of these spring reactions, like manic or hypomanic episodes, said that it’s common to see a huge increase in goal-directed behavior, which can often lead to a lot of effort without much to show for it.

“But if you extrapolate that down to a less severe end of the continuum, you might have people starting three different household projects. And if they’re anything like me, only half of one gets accomplished because it takes so much longer than expected,” she said, adding that her plan to clean out her craft room has led to it all being stuffed into a closet.

Joe Herman stretched before rollerblading in North Point Park in Cambridge.
Joe Herman stretched before rollerblading in North Point Park in Cambridge.Lane Turner/Globe Staff

Dr. Michael Terman, who heads the Center for Environmental Therapeutics, said the springtime shift in mood often features high periods of energetic mood and behavior that are punctuated by feelings of fatigue and despondence that in some cases can interfere with daily functioning. And while some people shift into their springtime mood smoothly, many experience a bumpy transition from the consistent winter low, which he said can be viewed as “time-limited depression,” before settling into a calmer summer state.

The connection between sunshine and serotonin levels is backed up by post-mortem brain research; people who die on a day with a lot of sunlight probably have elevated levels, Roecklein said. But what the data does not support is perhaps the most-oft repeated anecdote about spring fever: It makes us frisky.

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“If you count out nine months from now, that gets us to November and December, where there’s actually a lull in birth rates,” she said.

But what about spring cleaning? That strange urge to cull that moves people to consider strange questions like “What does it cost to rent a dumpster?” Rosenthal said that we are simply mimicking nature, which is always preparing for what is about to happen.

“Everything is starting again in spring. The year has a new beginning, so the idea of starting with a clean slate is part of it,” he said. “When you’re stuck in the winter doldrums, you’re not up for nasty chores. You’re not keen to say, ‘Let’s clean out the basement.’ Everything is more difficult in winter. The world is frozen and covered in snow. But when the environment becomes more pleasant, the zest to do things returns.”

And it goes without saying that this is no ordinary spring. As we pass the one-year anniversary of our quick two-week lockdown, there are signs that the pandemic may actually be drawing to an end, which could well be amplifying those feelings of energetic rebirth. Of zest and resolve. Of fresh starts and big plans.

And maybe, just maybe, following through on them.



Billy Baker can be reached at billy.baker@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @billy_baker.