Thaw Coming? So Too Our Bodies and Brains

For weather to improve mood, people need to spend at least 30 minutes outside in warm, sunny weather…

by Joyce Marter, LCPC

In Chicago during this tough winter, it sometimes has felt like the cold and the darkness are going to last forever, which can be depressing and leave us feeling unmotivated and in a funk. A break in the weather, even if temporary, can remind us of the light at the end of the tunnel. It will get warmer and lighter and Spring will come. With warmer weather in the forecast, let it be a good positive reinforcement to hang in there.

Weather changes mean we can expect to see Chicagoans shift from the “Blizzard Blues” to “Warm Weather Mania.” Increased temperatures can thaw out our brains and bodies along with the snow and ice. A break in weather can re-boot our minds and leave us feeling refreshed and give us the strength to endure the last leg of winter before Spring is really here.

More moderate weather is of course just a teaser for a few days. It is temporary. Make the most of it. Practice mindfulness. Instead of plowing through your day of responsibilities at work and home (the gerbil wheel of life, as I call it) take a minute to smell the air and really feel the warmth. Feel the breeze on your glove-less hands and hatless head. Look at the beauty of the lake and the sky. Take a few minutes to consciously soak it in the sun and warmer wither with awareness of your body and the sensations you are experiencing (sights, sounds, smells, and the feeling of the warmer air and sun on your skin).

Break in weather also gives us a break from our parkas. We Chicagoans can feel imprisoned by our winter coats. Even wearing a lighter jacket and going without the hat and gloves can feel liberating. For parents, it shaves many stressful minutes off of suiting up your kids and peeling off the layers every time you go somewhere.

More sunshine and warmer temps also encourages us to get active – exercise is a natural antidepressant, as it increases our endorphins. That doubles the mental health benefits of a warm day because we are getting sun and exercise that our hibernating bodies may have been craving.

There is a strong link between the weather and our moods. Weather is turbulent and has ups and downs like our moods. The research shows that:

  • Humidity, temperature, and hours of sunshine had the greatest effect on mood. High levels of humidity lowered scores on concentration while increasing reports of sleepiness. Headaches can also occur with this dramatic change in weather.
  • Rising temperatures lower anxiety and skepticism scores.
  • The number of hours of sunshine was found to predict optimism scores significantly. As the number of hours of sunshine increased, optimism scores also increased.
  • People are not only more motivated, upbeat, and happy when the weather warms up, but studies have shown that people sometimes are better able to focus, accomplish tasks, and think clearer about critical decisions when they are in more favorable climates.
  • Warm weather broadens our cognitive style—increases openness to new information and creative thoughts. You might find yourself wanting having a shift in perspective with new ideas and solutions coming to mind more easily. The warm weather truly cleans the cobwebs out of our brains.
  • Some may be tempted to play hooky from school or work—or at least try to duck out early to go for a run while it is still light out.
  • Warm weather can be a trigger for some to want to go out for a beer
  • To shop for spring clothes and shoes (free your feet from your boots!).
  • Your sex drive might come out of hibernation. Serotonin, a feel-good neurotransmitter produced by the brain, may also be responsible for heightened mood and sex drive during spring and summer. Multiple studies have suggested that the production of serotonin is directly related to sunlight and that with increased light comes increased serotonin levels.

Researchers from University of Michigan found in a study conducted in 2004, that for weather to improve mood, people need to spend at least 30 minutes outside in warm, sunny weather. They also found that spending time indoors when the weather outside was pleasant actually decreased mood and thinking capabilities. They believed this was perhaps because people resent being cooped-up indoors when weather becomes better in the spring or maybe because better weather can make normal indoor activities feel boring or annoying. So, get outside!! They also found that the transition from winter to spring offers the biggest boost in mood, especially if you are getting outside.

Some Chicagoans suffer from Seasonal Affective Disorder—also known as the “winter blues.” Symptoms include sleep problems, changes in appetite, depressed mood, fatigue, irritability, etc.. Chicago has inadequate bright sunlight so then low vitamin D. More doctors are suggesting that their patients get their vitamin D levels checked and are prescribing vitamin D to treat SAD and depression. Artificial sunlamp therapy is also very popular. If you notice dramatically feeling better with this weather shift, consider seeing your doctor or a therapist to be assessed for SAD or low vitamin D or depression.

As therapists in Chicago, we hear our clients talk about wanting to move to somewhere with a more mild climate—especially around this time of year. In “therapy land”, we refer to this as the “geographical cure.” Many people think if they move to Arizona or somewhere warmer, their lives will improve. Problem is that our thinking, our relationship styles, and our issues stay the same and we end up recreating the same stuff somewhere else. Sure, other places have less extreme weather but better to learn how to cope with what is hard about Chicago, to build the psychological strengths of resiliency and adaptability and enjoy those beautiful Chicago summers—better than uprooting your life for most of us.

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