Does Weather Really Affect Our Mood?
How to protect your brain from the winter blahs
By Rich Maloof for MSN Health & Fitness
January 22, 2009
Ask a child to draw two pictures—one on a rainy day and a second in the sunshine—and you pretty much know what to expect. In the first, as blue raindrops fall from the top of the page, the stick figure behind the window is frowning. When a yellow sun beams from the corner, the stick man is smiling, with his scrawny arms in the air and colorful flowers at his feet. Even his stick dog wears a grin.That rain is gloom and sunshine happiness is metaphorical rather than scientific, though it rings true because we humans are inherently sympathetic to our environment. But we are not its victims. Barring a mood disorder, our emotions are not casualties of the weather. The rain can be guilty by association, but not causation.Why? Because we are free to make choices that either better our disposition or worsen it.
Temperament vs. temperature
Since the early 1970s, around the time B. J. Thomas sang “Raindrops Keep Fallin’ on My Head,” researchers have sought to confirm a relationship between weather and temperament. Predictably, the lion’s share of studies correlate a low mood—episodic depression, lack of vigor—with high humidity and limited exposure to sunshine. Spirits tend to rise with increased time in the sun and higher barometric pressure. More recently, in October of 2008, a group of European researchers examinedthe impact of six different daily weather factors—temperature, wind, sunlight, precipitation, air pressure, and length of day—on more than 1,200 participants from Germany, most of them women.
Contrary to most prior research, the study’s central conclusion was that the average effect of “good” weather on positive mood was minimal. Windy, cool, and darker days seemed to have just a slight negative effect on mood, with many subjects reporting that they felt tired or sluggish.Though the study is ambitious and offers a new perspective on research on weather’s relationship to mood, it strains to draw a consensus. From the range of responses the study’s subjects recorded in their journaling, the researchers determined in the end that “people differ in their sensitivity to daily weather changes.”
Sunny day, dreaming the clouds away
Some people’s emotions are simply more vulnerable to weather changes than others. Someone prone to a low mood on dark, cold days will likely experience a depressive winter when there’s a prolonged string of like-weathered days. This propensity is the basis of Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD). However, most people are no more emotionally powerless against the weather than they are unable to put on a hat. Ani Kalayjian, Ed.D., R.N., professor of psychology at Fordham University in New York, advises that we “can and should take proactive steps to strengthen the [brain’s] system” against weather-driven mood changes. “We encourage people to take charge of their feelings,” says Dr. Kalayjian. Her self-help recommendations for SAD sufferers are applicable to anyone who wants to put a little sunshine in his or her step. “Do things that make you feel good, like listening to uplifting music or reading a good novel. Look at pictures from a vacation—and if you can, take a vacation to a warm place.” All of the tried-and-true methods of mood improvement and stress management apply as well, including getting regular exercise, moderating alcohol intake, and meditating.”Feelings are transient; we can change them, transform them into positive,” concludes Dr. Kalayjian. You may not be able to will the sun to break through overcast skies, but you can empower yourself to break through an emotional cloud.
A prescription for seasonal moodiness
In terms of psychology, grey skies fall into a grey area. Physiologically, though, we do reckon with weather conditions—sunlight, in particular—in direct and measurable ways.Research on SAD has been focused on the brain’s response to darkness and light, as the condition has been linked to the shortened daylight hours of winter. When our eyes detect darkness, a small gland in the brain called the pineal releases melatonin, which establishes sleep cycles. When we detect light, melatonin production subsides and its cheerier hormonal sibling, serotonin, takes over to promote wakefulness and help elevate mood. (The word serotonin is rooted in serum + tonic, so it’s like an elixir for happiness. Melatonin is the mel or “black” tonic, for darkness.)For most of us who aren’t suffering from SAD, the prescription for moodiness is straightforward.“We tell people to take advantage of the sunny days,” says Kalayjian. “Leave the computers and the indoor games and get out there in the sun. That’s when they can recharge their batteries—recharge their serotonin—and maintain higher mood.”
A day of rain can potentially soak your plans and temporarily dampen your mood. But don’t forget what B. J. sang: That doesn’t mean my eyes will soon be turning red / Cryin’s not for me….Because I’m free.