Does it make you smile to see a weather forecast showing nothing but clear, sunny skies and warm temperatures for the week ahead? Or are you someone who prefers gray, overcast days with threats of thunderstorms? Anyone who can tell it’s going to rain based not on a weather report but on their joint pain knows that environmental conditions can affect the physical body. Research indicates these effects aren’t just skin deep, though. The weather can affect moods and emotional health, too.
People are affected differently by different weather patterns, so there are no hard-and-fast rules with regard to the influence of the weather on people’s moods. Overall, though, the research suggests that high humidity may increase sleepiness and negatively affect concentration and focus. Some individuals live to sit out in the sun, soaking up every ray and basking in the heat. Others prefer to sequester themselves indoors surrounded by air conditioning and feel much better in colder weather with less sunshine.
In a study of 497 adolescents and their mothers, researchers identified four distinct types when it comes to weather and mood: Summer Lovers have better moods in warm, sunny weather while Summer Haters have worse moods under these conditions. People in the Unaffected category showed only weak associations between weather and mood, and Rain Haters experience particularly bad moods on rainy days. A correlation between mothers and children was found for two of the types, suggesting there might be some intergenerational influence but in general, findings from this study and others show there are large individual differences in how the weather affects people’s mood: some people love rainy days; others loathe them.
A 2013 paper in Science found that rising temperatures and increased precipitation have a significant impact on human conflict and interpersonal violence. The correlation between higher temperatures, more extreme rainfall and increased violence was seen on both small and large scales. The authors noted, “This relationship is apparent across spatial scales ranging from a single building to the globe and at temporal scales ranging from an anomalous hour to an anomalous millennium.”
Other researchers suggest the psychological effects of weather are influenced by the season and time spent outside. They found that higher temperature or barometric pressure was related to better moods, memory and “broadened” cognitive style in springtime as time spent outdoors increased. However, this relationship was not seen at other times of year, and the inverse was observed during summer—hotter weather and lower moods. The correlation between hotter weather and poorer moods was especially strong among people living in the south, where high temperatures can become downright debilitating. The researchers speculate the discrepancy between spring and summer moods might be related to seasonal affective disorder: people tend to feel better in spring after a few months of shorter, darker days and less time spent outdoors with exposure to sunlight. They summed this up by saying, “Pleasant springtime weather is a zeitgeber for changing mood and cognition from their wintertime settings back to their baseline settings.”
John M. Grohol, Psy.D., the founder and editor-in-chief of Psych Central, noted that weather can definitely affect people’s moods and emotions, but the strength and direction of the relationship varies from person to person. When there is a noticeable effect, it may be small in some people and more pronounced in others. As for the direction of the relationship, as one study put it, “Many people intuit that bad weather makes us sad and good weather makes us happy. Scientific investigation has largely failed to support such associations however…” This might depend on one’s definition of “good” or “bad” weather. If someone likes rain, then gray, rainy days are “good” in their view, while the same would be “bad” for those who prefer sunshine and blue skies.
What does this mean for your patients? The key for them to know themselves. If weather or temperature does affect them, how so? Do they prefer cooler or warmer weather? Sunny skies or overcast ones? If they’re aware of their own patterns, you can help them take measures to bolster their mood if and when necessary, such as by supplementing with 5-HTP, saffron, or extracts from mucuna pruriens, which naturally contains pre-formed L-DOPA, the precursor to dopamine. Probiotics may also have a beneficial impact on mood, but the effects take a little while to kick in. That might be something to add to a supplement regimen in advance of a shift in the weather, such as the transition from fall to winter or spring to summer.