How the Weather Can Affect Mental Health

How the Weather Can Affect Mental Health

The English language is full of idioms that connect the weather to one’s mood and emotions: “rain on my parade,” “on cloud nine,” “the winter blues,” “under the weather,” “a breath of fresh air.” While everyone is affected differently by the weather—some people love dark, rainy days while others find them depressing—the impact is undeniable.

While we may not be able to change the weather, recognizing how it can impact our moods and outlook can help us cope with its negative effects on our mental health.

Weather and Mood: Investigating the Connection Between Climate and Emotional Well-Being

People have long connected their mood and the weather, and as it turns out, several studies support this idea. In 2021, for example, the United Kingdom’s Journal of Affective Disorders published the results of a large study that demonstrated the impact that daylight has on an individual’s overall mood, sleep patterns and circadian rhythm. In this study, researchers observed that the more time someone spent in outdoor light, the less likely they were to experience severe depressive disorders, rely on antidepressants and have sleep difficulties.

One of the authors of the study summed up the results by stating, “All the tissues of our bodies have clocks that tell those tissues to function differently in the night and day and getting lots of natural light helps strengthen those clocks. This makes us generally healthier and happier. There’s a reason we refer to optimism as ‘looking on the bright side’.”

Similarly, a study from 2011 divided participants into four categories, depending on how the weather affected their moods:

  • Summer lovers; this group saw a marked improvement in their moods during the summer
  • Summer haters; these people’s moods were negatively impacted by summer heat
  • Rain haters; this group reported a decline in their moods on rainy days
  • Unaffected; these people reported that the weather had virtually no impact on their moods

It isn’t just sunny skies and warm temperatures, or the lack thereof, that may affect an individual’s mood; studies indicate the atmospheric pressure can also impact how an individual feels on a given day. An older study from 1997 observed that when the atmospheric pressure was falling, children became impulsive, easily distracted, restless and irritable. Fluctuations in pressure can trigger migraines in some people and cause others to report lower levels of life satisfaction.

Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD): Understanding the Impact of Seasonal Changes on Mental Health

Seasonal Affective Disorder, officially referred to as major depressive disorder with seasonal pattern, is a subtype of major depressive disorder that occurs when autumn begins and the days begin to grow shorter, resulting in less exposure to daylight. The Cleveland Clinic reports that about 5% of Americans, 75% of whom are women, have this disorder, and that it typically begins during young adulthood.

While the exact cause of this disorder is unknown, we do know that reduced sunlight can disrupt the individual’s circadian rhythm and cause the body to produce too much melatonin and not enough serotonin.

Fortunately, those prone to SAD aren’t automatically doomed to feeling depressed for months out of the year. Scandinavian countries, which include Denmark, Norway and Sweden, are recognized among the happiest countries in the world despite experiencing extended winters with limited daylight. Residents in these countries rely on conventional treatments such as light therapy and vitamin D supplements, but they also have a cultural philosophy that accepts and celebrates the cold, dark months. Many see these months as a chance to rest by getting some extra sleep and enjoying the downtime. They also continue to stay active in nature through winter sports and long walks.

For those who experience SAD year after year, even anticipating the changing seasons can bring on gloomy feelings. While limited sunlight during the cold months is unavoidable, it can be helpful to explore outdoor winter activities to make the most of the available daylight, whether that’s taking up cross-country skiing or bundling up for a snowy hike. Individuals can also talk to a mental health care professional to learn about treatment options to help them get through the winter months.

Biological Factors: Exploring How Weather Influences Neurotransmitters and Hormones

Exposure to sunlight has a profound impact on the body’s neurotransmitters and hormones, meaning that we have our biology to thank, at least in part, for the weather’s influence on our moods. For example, reduced exposure to sunlight can cause the body to release less serotonin. This neurotransmitter has a big job: It helps to regulate the individual’s mood, promotes memory and cognition and supports learning. It also plays a role in physiological processes such as maintaining a healthy blood pressure and normal digestion.

Similarly, exposure to sunlight greatly impacts how much melatonin the body produces. Melatonin is a hormone that helps to regulate the sleep-wake cycle, and how much of this hormone the body releases is influenced by the time of day it is. The body uses a variety of external cues to regulate the sleep-wake cycle, including sunlight.

Fewer hours of daylight combined with cold temperatures can make it difficult to regularly participate in outdoor activities that could help to regulate the body. If someone regularly leaves for work or school when it’s dark out and then doesn’t arrive back home until it’s dark again, they may not get enough sun exposure. As a result, the body may produce too much melatonin, causing excessive sleepiness and feelings of depression.

Psychological Impact: Examining How Weather Patterns Can Shape Mood and Behavior

For better or worse, weather can have a profound impact on an individual’s mood, temperament and outlook on life, and it can even affect their personalities. For most people, there’s a limited temperature range in which they’re comfortable, though that range varies considerably depending on the climate they’re accustomed to. Mildly warm temperatures that allow people to be active outdoors without discomfort are enjoyable, but very hot temperatures can cause some people to become aggressive.

According to a study published in The Association for Psychological Science, people are more likely to become irritable or behave aggressively when they’re exposed to excessive heat. This is true on a personal level as well as on a societal level, with the study showing an uptick in violent crime during the summer months in warmer regions. Even when controlling for socioeconomic factors, cities in warmer regions had more crime during the summer months than cities in cooler regions. Another study showed a direct correlation between crime and high temperatures in Chicago, showing that when temperatures rose 10 degrees above the average, the number of shootings went up by about 34%.

While the cold, dark months are more likely to result in low moods, very hot weather is more likely to create agitation. Being aware of the effect temperature and weather conditions may have on an individual’s mood can help them be mindful in regulating their behavior.

Coping Strategies: Navigating the Effects of Weather on Mental Health and Implementing Self-Care

While changing the environment isn’t always feasible—not everyone can get away for a tropical vacation in February, there are some effective coping strategies for when the weather is taking a toll on mental health.

Get Professional Help

Conditions such as seasonal affective disorder can be debilitating, and in some cases, getting professional help is the most practical first step. Mental health care professionals can create a treatment plan that includes antidepressant medications, vitamin D supplements, physiotherapy and light therapy to help the individual stay healthy and productive through the winter months.

Practice Self-Care

Regardless of the weather, it’s important to continue practicing self-care by getting enough sleep, enjoying healthy, balanced meals and incorporating plenty of physical activity.

Maintain an Active Social Life

When it’s more comfortable to stay indoors during very cold or very hot weather, this isolation can exacerbate mental health problems. Maintain an active social life by planning meetups with friends and family throughout the month.

Try to Get Some Sunlight Everyday

Getting adequate sunlight and spending time outdoors is essential regardless of the time of year you’re in. In the summer, this may mean getting an early morning walk in before the heat of the day drives you inside. In the winter, commit to bundling up and spending as much time outdoors as is safe.

There’s a clear connection between mood and weather, but being aware of the potentially negative effects can help you better regulate your emotions.