Get outside: Add a little sunshine to your existence

"Anyone who says sunshine brings happiness has never danced in the rain or snow."

- Author unknown

As I sit next to my window, watching the snowflakes fall, I can't help but marvel at the beauty around me. We are so lucky to have huge, beautiful, blue skies that fill the days in between the storms, making the blizzards seem like a welcomed surprise when they arrive. Yet, for a short time, my husband and I lived in the Midwest, and I remember well how the grayness of winter there seemed to lie like a blanket upon our moods.

These highs and lows of mood that we experienced are similar to those of most. For decades, mental health experts have believed that our emotions are related to weather. So hundreds of studies have been conducted to understand the relationship between the two.

One of the interesting findings is that we respond to various weather patterns with an immediate response, such as fear or amazement. We then associate the weather and these feelings with our past history, such as recalling a particularly stressful event or a romantic moment. Wind, heat, sun, snow, rain, storms, thunder, mist, hail and humidity may mean different things to each of us.

There are some quirky research findings. Higher temperatures are associated with increases in violent behaviors. Sunnier weather is related to slightly higher stock market returns. High temperatures are related to increased feelings of sadness. And most people are most physically and emotionally comfortable at 72 degrees.

These studies describe how we react to particular changes in weather, but other studies examine the more long-term affects of seasons upon our moods. Driving some of this research is a desire to gain more understanding of a disorder called seasonal affective disorder (SAD).

Ten to 25 million Americans suffer from SAD each year. It is a reoccurring disorder in which people's depression re-emerges with diminished daylight hours. Most people with SAD are women, and it is more common the further people live away from the equator. For example, 10 percent of people in Alaska suffer from SAD, while less than 1 percent of those in Florida do. The primary symptoms are loss of energy, sleeping and eating more, irritability, becoming more reclusive, decreased sexual desire, decreased concentration and sadness. The most effective treatment is light-therapy, in which people sit under full-spectrum lights for 30 minutes daily. Walking early in the morning as the sun rises is also helpful, and some people will need to take antidepressant medications.

The general population reports the lowest moods in winter months, and in northern states, most all people report some symptoms of SAD in the winter. However, personal expectations, past life events and current life events are more related to a person's well-being than summer or fall will ever be.

So, not surprisingly, while people report lower moods in cold seasons, psychological investigations regarding the association of weather and psychological change have been inconclusive. Researchers note that 93 percent of our lives are spent inside, so weather is not likely to dramatically alter our well-being.

A recent study by Matthew Keller, M.D., at the University of Michigan sheds groundbreaking information. After following 600 people through various seasons, their research indicates that the psychological effects of weather are moderated by two important factors: season and the amount of time spent outside. Pleasant weather, especially springtime, and spending at least 30 minutes outside each day, was related to higher moods, better memory and a "broadened" cognitive style. These researchers concluded that while weather is not a major player in relation to our psychological states, it can make a difference.

Sunlight appears to increase serotonin levels in both depressed and non-depressed people, likely accounting for part of these findings. This study also corresponds to pharmaceutical research in which regular "sunshine and exercise" beat every antidepressant on the market for the treatment of depression.

Watching the snow falling around us has become a regular event in recent weeks. It is greatly enjoyed while sipping tea next to a picture window. Yet seeing the neighborhood children running around outside, throwing snowballs and building snow people ... they looked so happy. If we adults would get outside to just enjoy this beautiful weather too, we would be better off in so many ways.

Lisa Keating, Ph.D., is a Carson City clinical psychologist.


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