By Carissa Weber, MA, LPC, CSAC
Ahhh, weather. The love-hate relationship we have with a natural occurrence completely outside of our control. Have you ever noticed how your mood can change just based on what you are seeing happen outside of the window? From sunny days at the beach, to over 5 inches of rain the next day (true story), weather has a way of shaping our mood and our reactions.
I bet you didn’t know the weather has more than just control over our mood. It has control over how our brain processes information. It can control how we physically feel. It can change our reactions (if you are like many of my clients that also farm, you know exactly how an inaccurate weather report can change how you talk to your tractor). Weather has a bearing on a lot in our life, and this post is where you can find the information on how weather can shape our mental health.
When I first started researching for this post, I typed in “mental health and weather.” I got a lot of information on how extreme weather can produce trauma and anxiety after it happens. I was not able to find lot about the link between why people can get so darn moody and agitated prior to a weather event. I knew however that there was some connection just based on watching my horses go crazy in the pasture when the weatherman would forecast storms heading our way.
I then chose to look at something that I know has control over the weather: the barometric pressure. For those of you who may not be weather savvy, the barometric pressure is the measure of the air pressure and the force needed to push that pressure around. When we are experiencing a high barometric pressure, that means the weather is really nice and stable. As the barometric pressure falls, it is a good indicator that some not-so-nice weather, like thunderstorms or colder temperatures, are moving in.
Now that you have your basic meteorology lesson for the day, what does barometric pressure have to do with our health? Well, physically, we notice some changes right away. Did you hear your grandparents or your parents (or even yourself) talk about how sore your joints are when a storm is moving in? You can thank you body for reacting to the low barometric pressure. When the barometric pressure drops, the soft tissues in our bodies (like in our joints or in old injuries) swell up to make up for the difference. This causes those worn out joints and old injuries to be pretty darn stiff and sore. Could this also be happening in the brain?
My research led me to this amazing article that outlined a research study done on bipolar changes when the barometric pressure changes done in 2017. The author of this study, Ben Bullock, and his team were able to find some pretty significant findings. They discovered when the weather was beautiful, temperatures were high, and the barometric pressure was high, their study group was more likely to report manic – type symptoms. These symptoms included an elevated mood, an increase in motivation, and more energy.
Now on those days that were colder, darker, and the barometric pressure lower, the same group of participants reported an increase in depressive symptoms like sleeping to avoid stressors, poor self-esteem, and an increased sense of worthlessness. What was cool about the study is that the participants did not know what variable was being tested, meaning they had no clue these researchers were looking at the effect of weather on mood!
This study shows that the barometric pressure has an impact on mood and emotion. What inside the brain is responsible for reacting when the barometric pressure changes? There has been some speculation that the change in barometric pressure, especially drops in the barometric pressure, can increase the production and reuptake of the neurotransmitter serotonin. As we know, serotonin is a feel-good neurotransmitter and helps our mood. How does that exactly work?
If you are just like me, you are thinking “isn’t this the opposite of what the research study was saying Carissa?” Let me explain a bit more. When we are in a low barometric pressure system, one part of our brain increases in size while the rest of our brain decreases. Can you guess what it is? I’ll give you a hint, it is not our dear friend that darn amygdala. It’s a part of the brain we haven’t spent a lot of time on, the cerebellum. When the barometric pressure falls, that darn amygdala, and the rest of the limbic system, tend to be squeezed by the pressure of the cerebellum increasing in size. This allows the blood vessels directly running to the limbic system to expand, and intake more serotonin. This is why when storm finishes up or moves out of the area, our mood can greatly change (just like the old saying “the calm before the storm”).
What is the cerebellum? I’m glad you asked! This is the part of our brain, located at the back of your skull, that is responsible for coordinating our muscle movements, regulating our speech, and maintaining our balance. As our cerebellum increases in size, it tends to put our prefrontal cortex in a spot that says “listen up limbic system! We have bigger fish to fry than the temper tantrum that darn amygdala is throwing right now!” What is interesting about the low pressure system in the cerebellum is that it is most likely to be bigger in the winter than in the summer when high barometric pressure systems reign supreme.
This ties into another mental health/weather phenomenon: seasonal affect disorder (better known as SAD). SAD is a condition that many people see in the dark cold times of winter. Their depression, their anxiety, and overall lack of motivation tend to increase. Many people attribute SAD with the lack of natural sunlight. They are partially (okay, mostly) correct, as natural sunlight releases vitamin D into our body, making it easier for tryptophan to be converted into serotonin. Another attributing factor to SAD is the change from a naturally high barometric pressure system to a low barometric pressure system. That change in pressure, along with the change in size of our brain, constrict the blood vessels to our limbic system, making it harder for the feel-good neurotransmitters of serotonin, dopamine, and endorphins, to make their presence known.
SAD affects over 1 million adults annually (although I think this is a gross underestimate, it is still pretty significant!). People who live in colder climates with clear weather changes for the seasons are more likely to struggle with SAD than those who live in warm stable areas. So for those of you who live north of Wisconsin, you are at greater risk of developing SAD then our friends who live closer to the equator.
Treating SAD can come in many forms. Many of my clients utilize UV lamps, better known as day lamps, to help their body naturally release vitamin D. Yet other clients have found success in taking a vitamin D supplement during these cold (and low barometric pressure) months. Many people with SAD find benefit from starting to see a mental health professional as well as starting an antidepressant. For many, SAD comes and goes just like blizzards and the lack of sunlight that seem to usher in the seasonal change.
Since we can’t control what the barometric pressure is doing, how can we gain control over our mental health when mother nature is all out of whack? There are some simple things that we can do to make life a bit easier, including:
- Participating in one of our favorite activities
- Increase your intake of foods rich in tryptophan and vitamin D (click here for a list of foods)
- Hang out with your favorite source of UV light (here is mine:
- Utilizing mindfulness skills, as outlined in Mindfulness: The Art of Becoming Calm, Cool, and Collected
- Engage in a physical activity, like walking or trying a new recipe
- Set a time to hang out with close friends or family (and get that oxytocin release)
- Put a date in your calendar to go do something that you find relaxing, like getting a massage, a pedicure, or to see a new band
- Remember to use your amazing DBT distress tolerance skills
Who would have thought that something so uncontrollable, like the weather, could have an impact on our mental health? Thank you so much today for taking the time to read about one of the factors outside of our control when it comes to our mental health. Rest assured, you are not alone in feeling out of sorts when the weather patterns change on you.
- Anderberg, Jeremy (2015). Fair or Foul? How to Use a Barometer to Forecast the Weather. Retrieved from https://www.artofmanliness.com/articles/fair-or-foul-how-to-use-a-barometer/
- Boker SM, Leibenluft E, Deboeck PR, Virk G, Postolache TT. Mood Oscillations and Coupling Between Mood and Weather in Patients with Rapid Cycling Bipolar Disorder. Int J Child Health Hum Dev. 2008;1(2):181-203. PMID: 19266057; PMCID: PMC2651091. Retrieved from https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC2651091/
- Bullock, B., Murray, G., & Meyer, D. (2017). Highs and lows, ups and downs: Meteorology and mood in bipolar disorder. PloS one, 12(3), e0173431. https://doi.org/10.1371/journal.pone.0173431. Retrieved from https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC5344507/
- National Institute of Mental Health (2021). Seasonal Affective Disorder. Retrieved from https://www.nimh.nih.gov/health/publications/seasonal-affective-disorder
- Penn Medicine (2019). Grandma’s Joints Hurts … Rain Is Coming: How Weather and Arthritis Are Connected. Retrieved from https://www.chestercountyhospital.org/news/health-eliving-blog/2019/may/how-weather-and-arthritis-are-connected