Stormy Weather is Great For Anxiety
Here’s why some of us feel happier when the weather is bad.
Robin Utz had dealt with mild anxiety before, but it exploded after a miscarriage. She slept poorly and was nervous and obsessed over past events not relevant to her current life. "I was worrying about stuff that had happened in third grade," says Utz, a project manager for a healthcare network in St. Louis. The nine-week pregnancy was the result of an in-vitro fertilization, one in several rounds of infertility treatments. She and her husband were now out of embryos. Utz seemed to be losing her grounding in grief.
She started taking medication and seeing a therapist. Another, more surprising source of solace: "bad" weather.
"I tend to really enjoy and look forward to rainy, stormy days," Utz says. She relishes the chance to take long walks in warm rain or to hole up at home during a storm. "There's less pressure to meet up, talk, and be upbeat when it's rainy," she says. "It's more common to hibernate." A grey sky or the sound of raindrops meld well with her mental state when she's anxious, providing a soothing congruity between mood and external stimuli.
Many people share this feeling in common. A post about the phenomenon on Reddit's "Anxiety" channel recently garnered more than a hundred responses in a week—dwarfing the next most popular topic. "My favorite days are rainy dark days," wrote one user. "Extra points if it's a freezing cold rainy day in the middle of the summer. Makes my anxiety go away and I feel more motivated in general."
"Thunder & lightening [sp] are like some magic pill," another chimed in. "I feel safe. I feel protected. I feel like a total person. … When I get up in the morning, I ask Siri if we will have rain today. If she answers yes, I want to kiss her."
The novelist Walker Percy often wrote of the beauty and calming power of the storms in Louisiana. In his best-known work, 1960's The Moviegoer, stockbroker Binx Bolling moves through his post-war suburban existence, full of existential confusion and convinced the post-war culture of picture shows and supper clubs is lazy and mediocre. He finds moments of relief in coastal winds and downpours. During one tender moment, Binx goes to bed "cozy and dry in the storm, snug as a larva in a cocoon, wrapped safe and warm in loving Christian kindness."
The closest clinical concept psychologists have for this preference for dour weather is reverse seasonal affective disorder or "summer depression," a subtype of the kind of depression sparked or intensified by a seasonal shift. SAD is most often triggered by fall or winter, when temperatures dip and daylight gets sparser. But 10 percent of cases are summertime ones, with rates highest in sweltering climates like India's.
Psychologists have a variety of explanations as to why some afflicted with anxiety find comfort in overcast days. "The brain naturally craves sensory input," says Kimberly Hershenson, a New York City-based therapist specializing in anxiety and depression. "Rain produces a sound akin to white noise. The brain gets a tonic signal from white noise that decreases this need for sensory input, thus calming us down. Similarly, bright sun tends to keep us stimulated."
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Indeed, studies have shown the benefit of "pink noise," that which has enough variables in frequency to engage the subconscious but not enough to distract or disturb. Rain, wind, and other storm noises are like this. Playing pink noise in a lab setting has been shown to have a positive effect on sleep and memory.
The totality and power of the elements also has a way of showing us our troubles are relatively small. "Stormy weather reminds people that the world is made up of forces bigger than they are, which makes their woes pale in comparison," says Laurel Steinberg, also a New York City-based psychotherapist and a professor at Columbia University.
Lastly, there is a commiseration effect when it seems like nature feels like we do. "Many people who are depressed or anxious infer the rain as the world's 'empathy' for their emotions," says Paul DePompo, director of the Cognitive Behavioral Therapy Institute of Southern California. "On a beautifully perfect day, it can make them feel more the outsider and alone in their thoughts."
Once one expects to be calmed by rain or snow, the effect is reinforced. Clouds themselves become a stress reliever. But this can be troubling and limited as a coping mechanism: You've come to rely on something you can't readily conjure. Aside from moving to Seattle or Glasgow, there's not much you can do to get more grey days in your calendar.
"The brain is conditioned to a specific response based on experience and exposure," says Iman L. Khan, a therapist with practices in New York City and Milwaukee. "Though having positive experiences with the sounds of a storm may offer temporary relief, developing a dependence on anything outside of one's locus of control could increase one's likelihood of having difficulties when those means are not available. The goal would be to learn to self-soothe without relying on any external sources."
Robin Utz recreates some of the effects of dour weather on sunnier days, using an ambient noise program on her computer, turning lamps on in her office instead of using sunlight, and cranking the AC to wear long sleeves.
When overpowering nature does interrupt the course of one's life, it's hard not to be taken outside the self in its presence. In one scene of Walker's The Moviegoer, Binx Bolling goes on a date. Like most events in his life, dates are unfulfilling and lead to no real connection, but this one is suddenly made romantic by a coastal tempest:
"The storm which has been brewing since noon breaks over our heads. Thunder rattles the panes. We walk out on the gallery to watch it. A rushing Gulf wind slashes the banana leaves into ribbons and blows dead camellia blooms across the yard. Veils of rain, parted for a second by the house, rush back together again. Trash from the camphor trees rattles on the roof. We stroll arm and arm up and down the lee gallery like ship passengers on a promenade."
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