The Effect of Weather on Mood and Behavior

The Effect of Weather on Mood and Behavior

Have you noticed that when the sky is overcast, hiding the sun for days, you feel depressed? Do you wake up on one of those cold, rainy days and just want to stay in bed? If so, you are not alone. Psychologists recognize seasonal affective disorder (SAD) as a subtype of a major depressive disorder and define it as “recurrent episodes of major depression, mania or hypermania with seasonal onset and remission.”

A clinical psychologist in San Francisco, an area that averages 67 rainy days a year says, “It’s pretty common to see a change in mood—such as feeling sadness or lower self-esteem—when it’s rainy outside.” Whether your depressed mood lasts a few days or is so severe you need psychological treatment, there are some scientific reasons for why weather affects your mood.

The Effect of Too Little Sunlight

Brains need sunlight in order to process certain chemicals that make you happy and alert. When there is little or no sunlight, the chemical that makes people tired and sleepy, melatonin, is produced in greater quantities. Lower melatonin makes people sleepy, less alert and feel like they have no energy. Sunlight limits the production of melatonin, so people are more alert, not as sleepy, and happier.

In addition to not producing melatonin, light increases the production of serotonin, a hormone that has been labeled by some as the “feel-good hormone.” It regulates the body’s sleep-wake cycle and is naturally produced when you get enough sunlight. Serotonin is used as an ingredient in some anti-depressants designed to elevate a person’s mood.

If you are feeling depressed on those overcast, rainy days when you cannot see the sun, make sure you have enough artificial light in your home. Some folks invest in a daylight lamp which is specifically designed to “mimic the appearance of sunlight.”

Other suggestions some have found helpful include:

  • Take a walk, even if it is raining or snowing. Exercise stimulates the production of serotonin.
  • Increase your carbohydrate intake. Carbohydrates boost the synthesis of serotonin. But, do not overindulge in carbohydrates, which can also lead to weight gain which, in turn, contributes to depression.
  • Be sure you get enough Vitamin D. The best source is, of course, sunlight. It is a necessary ingredient that stimulates the synthesis of serotonin and dopamine, which are both neurotransmitters. Neurotransmitters send the messages to the body that keep it functioning. They tell the heart to beat, the lungs to breath and affect moods and concentration levels.
  • Black pepper contains a compound that actually stimulates the production of serotonin.
  • Get a massage. This reduces stress which, in turn, increases the production of serotonin and dopamine.

Cold Weather Affects Body Energy Usage

Cold weather affects the mood by causing the body to put forth so much effort keeping the body warm and telling the heart to beat that other systems suffer. The system is using all its energy just to keep the body working, so there is no energy left for the immune system, which is necessary to ward off attacks of bacteria and viruses. So, you get sick with a cold or the flu. When you are sick, you are not happy.

Cold also worsens chronic pain. Struggling with chronic pain affects the mood and is one cause of depression. It is important during cold weather to stay warm and be sure you get the recommended dose of vitamins and minerals. Also, get enough sleep.

The Importance of Enough Sleep

If you are cold, you sleep lightly. You may have to get up and get ready for school or work while it is still dark. This results in you starting your day feeling sluggish because you have not recuperated from your activities of the day before. Your sleep cycle is disrupted due to a low serotonin level. Serotonin regulates sleep. Lack of sleep and lack of serotonin can cause headaches in addition to causing bad moods.

Be sure you create an environment conducive to sleep. Stay warm. Be aware that your bad mood at getting up in the dark may dissipate once you get enough light.

The Federal Government Recognizes the Mental Health Impact of Severe Storms

The Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA) notes that in addition to communities that face physical survival and safety issues during disastrous weather events, there is also a mental health component that must be faced. Anxiety is often felt by people who just live in areas known to be vulnerable to tornadoes, hurricanes, earthquakes and fires. During the actual event, mental health may be severely affected.

There will likely be good reasons for depression: there may be food and water shortages as well as severe losses of life or property. Some people may find their place of employment has suffered so severely that they no longer have a job, so they face economic uncertainty. People in these circumstances lose sleep and may turn to alcohol or drugs to mask their emotional pain.

When there is warning that a catastrophic event on its way, such as information that a hurricane is approaching, SAMHSA steps in before the event occurs. It offers webinars, podcasts, face-to-face training and tip sheets for first responders that provide education and training so they can better support the behavioral issues of the survivors as they recover from the disaster.


Rebecca has a background in medical writing and as a freelance writer with a B.S. degree in nursing, she has written on a variety of topics for physicians and other health services entities and worked for a number of years as a Certified Public Health Nurse.

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