15 Surprising Ways the Cold Weather Affects Your Mood

And you thought "winter blues" was as bad as it gets.

You may think of the weather as something that only affects your physical state. It makes you hot, it makes you cold. If you forget an umbrella or a raincoat, it makes you wet. But the truth is that weather has an equally tangible effect on your psyche, too—and no time of the year is that effect more palpably felt than in the throes of winter.

Yes, as the temperatures plummet, you'll go through all manner of mental state changes. Of course, there are the "winter blues" (scientific term: Seasonal Affective Disorder), but you'll also experience everything from boosted creativity and improved focus to impaired judgement and totally out-of-nowhere dietary cravings. And that's just the tip of the iceberg. Here, you'll find all the ways the winter weather affects your mood.

Feeling Cold Can Boost Your Processing Power

hilarious words

While physical warmth does seem to increase interpersonal connectivity, the more isolated feelings that come with experiencing cold have benefits, too. Certain types of creative tasks require referential creativity, and those are the ones you'll excel at when you're cold. A 2014 study revealed that, in cold conditions, subjects were better at recognizing metaphors, coming up with new names for pasta, and coming up with abstract ideas for gifts than subjects in warm conditions. Use that first cold snap of the year to figure out the great puzzle that is annual holiday shopping!

Low Temperatures Can Affect Your Judgement

russian in winter

That's not judgement as in, "I shouldn't eat this candy bar." It's judgement as in, "This person is guilty." German researchers put subjects in either cold or hot rooms, gave them mug shots, and asked them to describe the crimes each person might have committed. People in cold rooms were more likely to ascribe premeditation to the criminals—implied they were cold-blooded, one might say. People in hot rooms tended to describe them in terms of impulsiveness and, yes, hot-headedness. Somehow, the human brain can confuse physical feelings of cold with interpersonal feelings of coldness.

Rain Can Jumpstart a Craving for Carbs

rain boots in a puddle

For many parts of the world, the winter is the rainy season, so soggy weather can accompany cold temperatures. The combination can easily cause your mood to dip, and when this happens, your body starts to crave carbs. Eating pasta or bread will raise your body temperature and provide you with a momentary increase in serotonin—which is then followed by a precipitous drop. Yes, your body does need carbs, but to prevent that crash, reach for veggies like sweet potatoes, parsnips, and pumpkin, which are starchy but also rich in other nutrients.

Lower Air Pressure Can Cause Physical Pain

old elderly man suffering from knee pain

This is another one you can blame on the rain. When stormy weather approaches, the atmospheric pressure drops, which means the pressure of fluids in the body increases. This can cause swelling that can ultimately press on nerves and joints to cause pain, particularly in people who already experience chronic pain. Turns out your grandpa wasn't crazy when he said his trick knee could predict the weather. People who are in pain definitely aren't happy, so the rain can ultimately lead to further lowering of mood.

Darker Days Can Save Your Budget

man taking money out of a wallet

The winter isn't all bad news for your mood. Savvy marketers have discovered that people tend to spend more money when the sun is shining than when it's grey outside. For them, that means creating commercials and other ads that associate products with sunlight. For you, though, that can mean a lack of spending during the winter. You're less likely to make impulse purchases of things you don't need—what advertisers call hedonic products—which ultimately means you're spending less and saving more.

Cloudiness Can Make Your Flirting Less Effective

Man Giving Woman a Flirty Compliment {Free Acts of Kindness}

This may not seem like something you'd expect scientists to study, but it turns out there's experimental evidence that people are more receptive to flirting when it's sunny. One French study had an "attractive" 20-year-old man approach women on the street to flirt and ask for a phone number. About 22 percent of women obliged on sunny days, compared to about 14 percent on cloudy days. While the practice of accosting a woman on the street to ask for her number is certainly not the best approach to begin with, you're better off waiting to confess your crush until the sun's out.

Cloudy Weather Can Make You Less Generous

cloudy sky weather affects your mood

Another French study showed that drivers of any gender are more likely to pick up hitchhikersalso of any gender—when it's sunny than when it's cloudy. Researchers were careful to avoid rainy weather, since it's assumed that few people want to stop and let a damp stranger in their car. Again, this is not an endorsement of either hitchhiking or picking up hitchhikers, but it would seem that drivers' improved moods in the sunlight made them more generous. The reverse is also true, so you might not want to ask a friend for money in the winter.

Lack of Exercise Can Increase Stress

Stressed out man

If you don't love to exercise, it can be hard enough to convince yourself to go for a jog or a swim in the first place, let alone when the weather is freezing. Combine that fact with general winter sluggishness, and stress-related hormones can start to build up in your body without the physical activity to clear them out. If that wasn't enough, a lack of exercise can also cause your self-confidence to take a hit. Instead of wallowing, try to find a new form of activity that doesn't force you out into the cold. Start by considering the 30 Workouts That Burn More Than 500 Calories An Hour.

(Mildly) Cold Weather Can Make You Less Aggressive

Here's one you might not expect—a historical meta-analysis study compared times of heightened interpersonal and intergroup violence (more simply: "war") with climate patterns and found that extreme high temperatures and extreme precipitation seem to make people more aggressive and violent. Data analysis also shows that shootings in Chicago are much less frequent in the winter. There are no guarantees, of course, and violent crime does still happen in the winter, but perhaps the cold really does cool people off a bit.

The Cold Can Make You Sluggish

man ready for winter

When you've got to bundle up just to go out and get the mail, are you suddenly hit with a wave of lethargy? You're not lazy—it turns out that extreme temperatures really do reduce your performance on complex tasks. The cold can affect everything from your balance to your muscle strength. However, the best cure isn't indulging this sluggishness; instead, try to get regular exercise and eat healthy food to combat this winter weariness.

Too Little Sunlight Can Depress You

things women don't understand about men

No doubt you've heard of Seasonal Affective Disorder, appropriately abbreviated SAD. When the winter months come around and the days start getting shorter, we all get a little less exposure to sunlight each day. For people with SAD, also called seasonal depression, that lack of sunlight translates to lower serotonin levels in the brain, resulting in fatigue, irritability, and, of course, depression. The good news is that, in sunnier climes near the equator, SAD is very rare. If the darkness has you down, it's time to start packing your bags for Barbados.

Cloudiness Can Defog Your Memory

weather affects your mood

There actually is an upside to cloudy, rainy days and the grouchiness that comes with them. In a field study, psychologists spoke with shoppers coming out of a store and asked them to recall 10 specific, unusual objects that they had earlier placed in the checkout lane. It seems that "weather-induced negative mood" actually improved people's memory. People in a bad mood during cloudy weather remembered seven times as many objects as people on sunny days.

Low Humidity Can Help You Focus

never say this at work

Cold air holds less moisture than warm air, so when the temperatures drop in the winter, so do the humidity levels. Many home heating systems further dry out the air. While air that's too dry can become a problem, the lower humidity can actually increase concentration and decrease sleepiness. A British study looked at the effects of different aspects of weather—temperature, sunlight, air pressure—on test performance and found that humidity had the most pronounced effect. If you're having trouble focusing at work, maybe your office is just too damp.

Cold Weather Doesn't Affect Everyone Equally

skin changes 40s

If you feel energized in the winter and lethargic in the summer, you're not alone. A study published in the journal Emotion revealed that different people have different emotional profiles when it comes to weather—and they have names, too. Summer Lovers have better moods during warm and sunny weather, but Summer Haters feel just the opposite: the heat gets them down. The two additional profiles were Rain Haters, who feel significantly worse in the rain, and the Unaffected, who simply don't show strong associations between weather and mood.

Winter Can Make You Less Prone to Suicide

socks on a heater next to books and a cup of tea in a home in winter

It might seem counterintuitive, given all the evidence that low temperatures and bad weather increase depression, but multiple studies have found that suicide rates dip in the winter and peak in the late spring or early summer. This holds true whether or not the person had been previously hospitalized for a mood disorder, and scientists can only speculate about the cause. If you have suicidal feelings in any season, of course, please ask for help. (The National Suicide Prevention Lifeline is available 24/7/365 at 1.800.273.8255.) Remember that the blues—whether in winter or summer—are only temporary, and each season brings a fresh chance to improve your mood.

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Alex Daniel
A journalist based in Brooklyn, New York. Read more
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