Weather Impacts How We Feel — But Why?

An investigation into the emotionality of seasons.

12.04.17

On the first gray day of the fall season, you can spot the jump in my step from a mile off. It’s like something inside me turns on, reminds me of who I am, where I’m standing, that air exists, that I exist. Colder months make me giddy; they feel like home.

“I hate winter,” Kate from South Carolina told me. “It’s like a switch goes off in me and I get super tired, moody and sad.”

I’ve long considered my predilection for fall to be somewhat logical. There’s a reason we call nice feelings “the warm and fuzzies.” Staying in is easy; going out is hard. Big pants are comfortable; jean shorts aren’t. Colder weather is cozy; hot air’s a metaphor for bullshit.

According to the universe in which I’m the protagonist, these things aren’t up for debate. But in the real world, for every person whose muscles relax when it’s gloomy, like mine, there’s another whose contract, like Ana’s.

“I feel like I’m constantly clenching my whole body,” she told me when I asked how she felt about the cold. (She lives in London.) “My skin is dry, my hair is dull. Everything takes forever and it’s hard doing anything spontaneously. Winter also makes being single/feeling lonely so much worse.”

Bex lives in London, too, but she feels the opposite of Ana, citing warm weather as a precipitant for social pressure. “In summer, you can hear all the fun-havers outside and you feel lonely and forgotten and left out,” she says. “There is a safety in the cold. It’s okay to stay indoors and keep to yourself and not feel like you are left out of the party.”

I’m often with Bex; the excuse to stay in when it’s cold brings me comfort, whereas doing so in the summer incites guilt. The more women I asked for their seasonal preferences, the vaster the spectrum grew, with pools of passionate people on either end, making the case for an emotional argument we would never settle.

“Winter feels much more closed off and isolated. Layers of clothes and cold separate me from everything,” said Victoria from Oklahoma.

“I feel more expressive and open in the winter. I experience a sensation of being exposed by a blinding summer sun, but in the winter a bit of gloom comforts me,” said Katherine from Georgia, in direct opposition.

“I am a night owl who works best when it feels like nobody else is around. I become a lot more productive in the winter because I start working earlier,” said Grace in Missouri.

“Mostly [winter] affects my productivity levels since when it gets dark, I intrinsically feel like the day is winding down,” countered Sarah in Boston.

Weather gets flack for being a safe topic that fuels small talk, but for many people, it can have serious physiological effects. In the mild, a general months-long grumpiness, in the extreme, major depression.

Seasonal Affective Disorder, a.k.a. SAD, isn’t just a cute synonym for the winter blues. According to the National Institute of Mental Health, it’s “a type of depression that comes and goes with the seasons, typically starting in the late fall and early winter and going away during the spring and summer.” It’s not considered its own disorder, but rather a form of depression that consistently cycles with the weather. Per NIMH, people who experience SAD may have trouble regulating serotonin, the hormone melatonin or Vitamin D during the winter months.

I usually get happier during colder weather because it becomes more socially acceptable to spend time alone.

On the other end, there’s the 2014 study by JAMA that suggests suicide rates increase as hours of sunlight do — and spike in the springtime every year. Michelle Riba, MD, professor and associate director of the University of Michigan Comprehensive Depression Center, attributes this to the exact phenomenon Bex from London pointed out earlier. “[S]eeing cheery people all around you is a constant reminder that others are having a good time when you aren’t,” Dr. Riba told CNN.

Social interaction was a particularly polarizing topic among the women I spoke with. “I love the winter season,” said Sam in South Dakota. “The pressure of the ‘bikini bod’ is gone and I don’t feel as much FOMO. I’m a big homebody and the idea of having a whole week home to just work on projects, nest and cook is my dream.”

Becca in California agrees: “I usually get happier during colder weather because it becomes more socially acceptable to spend time alone, stay inside and read.”

On the other end, cold weather for many signals an overwhelming sense of dread. “I’ve had depression all my life but it always gets worse in the winter,” Jasmine in London told me. “It’s the winding down of a year and I constantly over-stress about how little I feel I’ve achieved.”

Aynsley has a similar experience in Nova Scotia, Canada: “It’s really more of an augmented and more predictable version of my overall depression. It gets dark early here (around 4:30) and it says dark until 7:45 a.m. It feels like there is so little time in the day, that the feeling of ‘I’m useless’ is made stronger.”

And then there’s Megan in California, who experiences the inverse: “The second I hear rain, or even spot a puffy gray cloud in the sky, my mood changes — for the better. I feel more productive when it rains and also genuinely feel more connected to the rest of the world.”

The only prevailing theme across the answers was how differently people respond to seasonal changes. The emotions may be the same: sadness, loneliness, malaise, laziness…but their catalysts were as liable to be heat and sweat as they were cold and shivers. I was reminded, the more I heard, of the introvert/extrovert binary our culture’s become so enamored by. The summer/winter spectrum seems, if not perfectly correlated, at least adjacent.

When the sun sets earlier it’s like my happiness faucet just stops dripping joy.

But just as I started to feel that summer was an extrovert’s paradise and winter an introvert’s one, I noticed other personality quirks popping up as influencers, sometimes those that were in direct contrast to sociability. Zeynep from Istanbul, for instance, enjoys the comfort of winter, and thinks the summer is less social.

“I feel so much happier when it’s colder,” she said. “I feel like this entire season is a big hug which consists of layers of clothing, textures and sweaters…I don’t like summer, I can’t stand heat and everything that comes with it. Dressing up is harder, and people are barely in town during the same period of time.”

Savannah in Brooklyn echoed her sentiment: “I overheat and sweat so much in the summer it makes me irritable and anxious. I love fall/winter clothes and feeling all cozy wrapped up in sweaters and scarves.”

And on the point of bodily comfort, where Sam from South Dakota earlier said winter relieved the pressure of the “bikini bod,” Danielle from Queens said summer is what helps her body image: “I always feel more motivated in the summer. I believe it directly correlates with how I diet and my body weight fluctuates with the seasons. I think my winter sadness stems from not feeling 100% with my body.”

My inability to map certain characteristics to certain seasonal preferences may have surprised me, but I was more taken aback to learn just how many people experience SAD. And not just as a manifestation of summer scaries, but as a very real threat to their mental stability.

“I am very nervous for this winter gloom and how it is going to affect my well-being and mental health,” said Alexis in New York. “It’s like going through a rough path — you just can’t see the light at the end of the tunnel until you’re out of the tunnel.”

“I run on empty this time of year. I hear myself, and others say it too: ’empty,'” said Olivia in Nashville.

“I’m a generally hopeful person who likes to jump out of bed in the morning,” said Halina in Boston, “but when the sun sets earlier it’s like my happiness faucet just stops dripping joy.”

Clearly there’s a wealth of vulnerability hidden beneath our weather small-talk — much more than we’re willing to unpack on elevators. But maybe we’d benefit from doing so. For Natalie in New York, being more accepting about her winter sadness has give her hope: “I am profoundly impacted by SAD every year around September/October… This year I’ve committed to embracing the dull, lingering sadness that comes with fall instead of trying to fight it. And ironically, I feel much better this year than usual.”

Perhaps she can try to see the world through Avi in Munich’s eyes: “There’s this infinite calmness about winter — darker skies, falling snow, less people outside — that leaves me at peace.”

As for me, after all my whining about weather-talk, I plan to be a more empathetic conduit going forward. So let’s talk about the weather. How does it make you feel? And what do you do to combat it?

Feature image by Krista Anna Lewis, originally shot for this 2015 MR story about becoming a morning person.

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