Weather and Mood

NOTE: Lynn’s case is hypothetical.

It’s June! It’s getting warm! Is your mood increasing too? If so, that’s not surprising because there a relationship between our moods and the weather. For example, researchers at the Virginia Institute for Psychiatric and Behavioral Genetics found that mood and thinking ability both improved with warmer temperatures, and sunny, pleasant weather. But, there’s a caveat: The researchers also found that when assigned to work on tasks outside on warm, sunny days, the mood of the research participants increased; for those assigned to complete the tasks inside, however, even when pleasant weather conditions prevailed outside, mood was lower. In other words, the positive effect of weather depended on where the person was working during those nice weather conditions. Working outside – certainly more stimulating to the senses than being inside – produced better performance than working inside.

Isn’t this exactly what happens every Spring (except for 2020, of course, when the pandemic took hold)? Warm April days come after weeks of cold weather that have driven you inside – at least in the North. And now, almost overnight, there is opportunity for outdoor activities. So, you get outside and do more and you feel great!

There’s a key word here: Activity. Is winter a “downer” for you? If so, is it possible that you might feel a little sad in the winter months because you change your routine and give in to the darkness? All those worries about the dangers imposed by bad-weather driving, flying home for the holidays, becoming snowbound, getting the flu, or a host of other concerns – all resulting from negative psychological responses to winter – just tie you up in knots. So, you retreat and curl up on the couch. You’re less likely to “mask-up” and go out to dinner and parties, host small social events at home, or engage in outdoor hobbies and recreation. You lower your activity level.

Every September Lynn gives her psychiatrist’s office a call and asks to refill her anti-depressant medication. She tells them she’s feeling fine and hasn’t taken any meds since last April. But winter is coming and she knows that come late October she will begin to feel “down” as those winter blues set in. She wants to get a running start and start the meds so they will have already “kicked in” by November, and she will cut off the depression at the pass, so to speak. Her strategy is like getting a flu shot before the flu season sets in.

If you tend to get down-in-the-dumps during winter and want to take antidepressants, that’s your choice. But in a few months, you might consider an alternative strategy. Perhaps the key to maintaining a good mood during winter is to maintain your activity outside the home. When winter 2021-22 begins to rear its ugly head, don’t let it drive you inside; rather, stay active. Schedule special events and activities that you’ll enjoy. Sure, you’ll have to adjust from November to April to take that walk, go to the gym, deliver meals to the needy, volunteer at the animal shelter, or visit with hospice guests, but doing so is better than sitting on your butt.        

Some physiologists speculate that winter depression results from altered brain biochemistry because of reduced sunlight. While certainly plausible – bathing in sunshine is uplifting for the spirit – a psychological hypothesis seems equally reasonable. As winter approaches and the days get shorter, maybe it’s not reduced sunlight that makes you feel miserable; maybe it’s what you do – or don’t do – during the reduced sunlight that brings on that glum mood. Yes, you can choose to take antidepressants during this time; but you can also resolve to approach winter as a challenging time to continue with activities that give you pleasure and a sense of control in your life, not as a time to hibernate! What you do is under your control; the weather is not! So, have a great summer, but when it’s over, find creative ways to extend your pleasurable warm-weather activities into the winter months. [For a lengthier, more detailed look at this topic, see our entry on November 12, 2017.]

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