Overcast, with a 20% Chance of Gloom

We are in the dead of winter, with the holidays behind us and summer seeming so far away. The days are shorter and (for some) cloudier…and are they affecting our moods as well? Some love this type of year, for the time when we are finally able to slow down and rest, to renew our spirits. On the other hand, many struggle with the extended cold and darkness.

With a few exceptions across the southwest, portions of the eastern seaboard, Alaska, and Hawaii, December through February are the cloudiest months across the United States. Lump in the “shoulder” months of November and March, and the percentage grows. So how do those overcast winter days affect our moods?

Courtesy: Brian Brettschneider

The National Institute of Mental Health estimates that millions of American adults may suffer from Seasonal affective disorder (SAD). SAD is a type of depression that is related to the changes in the seasons. Symptoms most commonly start in the fall and continue into the winter months, though it can also occur in the spring or early summer. SAD can zap your energy and make you feel moody. This year might be particularly difficult, as indoor gatherings are less likely to be able to occur due to the pandemic. If you believe you are suffering from SAD, talk to your health care provider or mental health specialist about your concerns.

Many doctors recommend that people with SAD get outside early in the morning to get more natural light, but if that is impossible, light therapy or medications may help. Being outside, even when it’s cloudy, is said to have a positive impact. If you live in an area with little to no sunlight during the winter months, try an alarm clock that simulates sunrise and sunset. Personally, I have this one and love it!

Furthermore, we could all likely learn something from the Scandinavians, who promote a culture of “hygge” – the Danish word for that feeling you get when you are cozy, safe, seen, connected, relaxed, grateful. Though there are days when they don’t even see six hours of daylight, they have found happiness by going “all in,” doing small things (such as gathering with family, lighting candles, playing games, and eating lots of food) that make winters more bearable.

Extreme Events and their Impacts

Extreme weather events also take a toll on our mental health as well. Last year we discussed the impact that hurricanes can have on both physical and mental health, though the risk is also high for those living in areas prone to tornadoes, floods, wildfires, and tsunamis. For many, the impacts of extreme weather events can linger for years.

On the bright side, extreme weather does also tend to bring out the best in people. As Mr. Rogers reminded us, “When I was a boy and I would see scary things in the news, my mother would say to me, ‘Look for the helpers. You will always find people who are helping.’” Whether rallying behind communities far away that have been impacted by weather disasters or donating to homeless shelters during the coldest days, the hardships of severe weather tend to make people more empathetic. Check out these stories of kindness from New Orleans in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina for even more proof.

The Day to Day Weather

Does an October rain shower make you sad? Do warm, sunny days lift your spirits? As it turns out, the association between current weather and mood is relatively small. The bigger factor is whether you were in a good mood or not before you recognized what the weather was. If you’re already in a good mood, dreary weather likely won’t bring you down too much….but if you’re already feeling blah, a cold and dreary day can definitely make you feel worse. An exploratory study by the American Psychological Association found that weather variables such as temperature, sunlight, and precipitation have little affect on a positive mood, though temperature, wind, and sunlight all affected negative moods.

At the end of the day, it is important to realize that we all will react to different weather scenarios and seasons differently. Embrace what you’re feeling, and keep in touch with loved ones. Regardless of the season, try to get outside once daily, as spending time outdoors has been linked with lower stress levels and increased well-being. Most importantly, remember to ask for help if you need it.

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