By Geraldine “Gerry” Viggiani
As a seasoned psychotherapist in New Jersey, I have informally observed how weather impacts my clients’ moods. I hear, “If it were summer, I would feel better, brighter, even lighter.” Broadly what I have noticed is that people tend to be more social in the warmer months, going to outdoor parties, gatherings, and partaking in activities like swimming, boating, and warm-weather sports.
As social beings, the increase in face-to-face contact is rejuvenating and pleasurable. During the COVID-19 quarantine, spring, summer, and early fall provided much-needed relief from the crippling isolation by creating the ability to enjoy each other’s company outdoors, even if it was socially distanced.
The positive consequences of warm weather and sun may be dependent on your geographical area. Here in the northeastern U.S., we get to experience four seasons. So, the delineation between warm and sunny days and cold and blustery ones is clearly more noticeable. There is a sense of emerging from hibernation, which this is often highly valued.
But what about people who live in colder climates with shorter periods of warm weather and sun and higher than average rainfall?
Many studies have attempted to analyze how geography and climate effect mood. One idea is that our circadian rhythms, the natural rhythm that governs our sleep-wake cycles, are impacted by the hours of daylight. Studies have shown that people who have depression often have jumbled circadian rhythms. They often feel sleepy during the day, lack engagement with daylight through isolation and darkness, and avoid sleep at night either purposely or through insomnia. This has been proven to directly impact mood and the development of mood disorders such as major depression, bipolar disorder, and seasonal effective disorder. Through these studies, it appears that exposure to summer-like weather would indeed impact our mood in a positive way if it were balanced by proper sleep.
But wait! A study in the European Journal of Public Health, “Geographical and Climatic Factors and Depression Risk in the SUN Project,” contradicts common myths about how weather impacts mood. The results reflect that people who lived in geographical areas that experienced more daylight hours and warmer, sunnier climates are more depressed, especially in men. So obviously further study is needed.
What is the answer then? I believe that mental flexibility, letting go of expectations, and self-care can create positive mood change.
We must remember that mood is directly impacted by so many factors. Characteristics related to biology and heredity, as well as trauma, socioeconomic status, social justice issues, and geographical locations all impact mood and need to be recognized here. The issue is very complex and can need professional intervention.
For those minimally to moderately affected by the weather, mental flexibility can be especially helpful. This happens when we have expectations and assumptions that in order to have fun or feel good we need a sunny, warm day. For many, a sunny day means gathering with friends or having fun. The disappointment that is felt when you don’t have plans on a sunny day or when the weather changes and plans fall apart can feel depressing, frustrating, and even angering.
Remember that social media can enhance these expectations; I might recommend avoiding it in these moments. Start with practicing acceptance of what is through breathing, relaxation, and turning your mind to accepting thoughts, such as “It is what it is” and “I am OK no matter what the weather is.”
Next, why not shift plans indoors with fun activities like game nights, hobbies, puzzles, and engaging dinner conversation? Different—yes, but still fun. This shift can be seen with people who live in colder climates who have learned to adapt, enjoying cold-weather activities such as ice skating and skiing.
In addition, practicing mindfulness and dialectical thinking works wonders on expectations. Being present in the moment and staying away from black and white thoughts like it’s raining or cold so it must be a bad day. Instead, create a dialectical thought like, I would prefer it to be a sunny day but I can still have fun anyway.
Engage in self-care by regulating your circadian rhythms. Get outdoors despite the weather. Even small, filtered amounts of natural daylight can help. Get regular sleep at night. If possible, wake up with the sun, avoid napping, and wind down at sunset leading to sleep. Aim for an average of eight hours of sleep a day. Meditation, soothing at bedtime, and exercise in the morning can help make this happen. Lastly, avoid caffeine and alcoholic beverages, which interfere with the ability to get a restful sleep. If all else fails, or if your mood distress is significant, be sure to consult a professional.
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