If you’re recovering from addiction, it pays to keep track of the things that affect your mood and overall mental health. Most people with a substance use issue also have a mental health issue such as depression, anxiety, ADHD, PTSD, bipolar disorder, personality disorders, and others. In addition to therapy and possibly medication, healthy lifestyle changes are key to managing these issues.
It helps to understand the factors that affect your mental health, including people you spend time with, what you eat, how much you exercise, and even the weather. While we can’t control the weather, being aware of how the weather affects your mood can help make you less vulnerable to its possible effects and allows you to make adjustments. The following are some of the ways weather can affect your mental health.
One of the biggest ways weather is likely to affect your mental health is winter seasonal affective disorder, or SAD. People with a history of depression or bipolar disorder are particularly vulnerable to winter SAD. While many people experience winter blues, SAD is an actual episode of depression. Symptoms typically include depressed mood, sleeping too much, fatigue, lethargy, and increased appetite, especially for sugar and carbs. As you might expect, winter SAD is more likely to affect people in northern latitudes, where days get shorter and temperatures get colder.
We don’t know exactly what causes winter SAD, but we have some pretty good ideas. The primary factor may be that your circadian rhythm gets disrupted, since it’s common to wake up in the dark, spend the whole day inside, then go home in the dark during winter months. We need the light to wake us up and initiate the hormonal changes that keep us on a regular wake/sleep cycle. Research suggests that disruptions in circadian rhythm may significantly contribute to depression. For this reason, light therapy is typically the treatment of choice for winter SAD.
While winter SAD is the most common, many people also experience summer SAD. Some people experience this as a depressive episode but whereas winter SAD depressive symptoms typically include excessive sleeping and increased appetite, summer SAD depressive symptoms are more likely to include disturbed sleep, poor appetite, and possibly weight loss.
People with bipolar disorder will sometimes experience manic or hypomanic episodes triggered by hot weather. These typically include having lots of energy, little need for sleep, racing thoughts, and starting new, ambitious projects. More severe symptoms might include delusions of grandeur, paranoia, or psychotic symptoms.
It’s important to distinguish between a bad mood and an actual depressive episode. The former may last hours, or perhaps days, while the latter must last at least two weeks and include other symptoms such as fatigue, poor concentration, and disturbed sleep. Still, a bad mood is a cause for concern when you’re recovering from addiction or depression.
One study found that if you’re in a good mood, the weather won’t have much effect on your mood, but if you’re in a bad mood, the weather can make it worse. The actual results of the study were a bit of a mixed bag because people tend to respond to weather differently. Participants did tend to report that an increase in temperature gave them more energy. Worse mood also seemed to correlate with less sun and more wind.
These effects were relatively small but still significant. What’s more, some people appear to be more sensitive to weather variations than others. The important thing is to notice how weather affects you and recognize when an oppressively hot day or rainy weather might be partly responsible for your lousy mood.
While normal daily changes in weather have a mild effect on mood and mental health, the effects of extreme weather are more complicated. Extreme weather events, such as hurricanes, floods, tornadoes, droughts, and heatwaves can massively increase your stress and anxiety, both as you wait to see if you are actually going to be affected by an impending disaster, or afterward when you’re trying to deal with the fallout.
These situations can trigger anxiety, panic, and depression, and they may cause PTSD, even years after the fact. A current area of active research is the effects of climate change on mental health. Early research suggests that worry over climate change may contribute to a number of mental health challenges, including anxiety, guilt, and grief.
Paradoxically, severe weather can also have some positive effects. People tend to pull together in a crisis. Donations to non-profits tend to increase and people tend to help out their friends and neighbors. Sometimes people who typically struggle with anxiety or depression are suddenly able to act with calm and focus in the face of dire need. What’s more, the challenging emotions and the more positive emotions are not mutually exclusive. You can act with purpose during a crisis and still experience symptoms of PTSD after the storm has passed.
Finally, there’s research to suggest that hot weather may make us more anxious, irritable, and even violent. For example, one study found that people with panic disorder tended to have the most problems during the August heat and that they were more sensitive to weather changes in general. It is also well documented that rates of violent crime tend to increase in hot weather.
There may be several factors involved here. The hot weather may make it challenging for the body to dissipate heat, creating a greater feeling of stress. Hot weather may also increase breathing and heart rate, mimicking anxiety. Furthermore, we tend not to sleep as well in hot weather and that sleep deficit can lead to both increased anxiety and decreased self-control.
As for the crime, it’s also possible that there’s a greater opportunity to commit violent crimes when the days are longer and people are out. However, other studies suggest an increase in irritability and aggressiveness on hot days, so it’s likely that the heat is at least partly responsible.
Some of us are more sensitive to the weather than others and if you’re prone to depression or anxiety, it’s more likely you will notice the effects of weather on your mood. The important thing is to be aware of these effects and find effective ways to cope. As the old saying goes, you can’t control the wind but you can adjust your sails.
At Enlightened Solutions, we know that a lot goes into having a strong recovery from addiction. It’s not just abstaining from drugs and alcohol, but rather about learning to understand yourself, sustain healthy relationships, and manage your emotions. These are all priorities in our treatment program. To learn more, call us at 833-801-5483.
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