What bad weather is doing to us mentally, what we can do about it and is there a silver lining?

Being exposed to prolonged bad weather can negatively impact your mood. Here's how to beat it.
Being exposed to prolonged bad weather can negatively impact your mood. Here's how to beat it. Photo credit: Getty Images

As the saying goes, "sunshine is good for the soul" - and for people living in regions where there has been more rain than rays of sun, the weather is weighing them down.

So, what effect does continuous bad weather have on us? And, how can we look after ourselves during these gloomy days?

Newshub set out to answer these questions, because Aotearoa, particularly those at the top of North Island and along the East Coast, have experienced tragic weather events and continued bad weather over the past several months. 

Dr Jackie Feather is a clinical and counselling psychologist based in Auckland. She's also the co-convenor of the Climate Psychology Task Force (CPTF), a group of psychologists working to understand the impacts climate change has on mental health, and how the workforce can support those who are experiencing the impacts climate change has on our well-being.

Dr Feather said a recent global analysis, published in 2021, of the psychological impacts of extreme weather events from 1980 to 2020 found more than 90 percent of us will experience some form of negative psychological outcome after an extreme weather event. 

"That might be worry, it might be shock, it might be 'gosh is this going to be the beginning of what's coming weather-wise'."

She said the mental health effects vary and are very localised because it's dependent on the event and where it happened. 

Dr Feather said the psychological impact is worse in lower socioeconomic areas when vulnerable populations are hit by bad weather.

"In Auckland, the low-cost housing and flood zones, and those communities have seen the impact, and the people have experienced their homes being flooded, property lost," she said.

"This is not to minimise the impact of flood damage on your home. Whatever your socioeconomic status is, people will obviously be adversely affected by damage to their home."

But the bad weather blues don't just hit in the wake of extreme weather events. Being exposed to prolonged bad weather can also influence one's mood.

Clinical psychologist Kobus Du Plooy told Newshub the effect the weather has on our well-being is a natural outcome, and said "a lot of people experience a lowered mood in bad weather".

"A little bit on the back foot"

Kiwis expect to have a summer full of sunny activities like going to the beach, camping and the odd BBQ - anything that allows us to soak in the sun.

But the end of summer threw more rain at the top of the north than it did sunshine, with the Auckland Anniversary floods and Cyclone Gabrielle that shortly followed.

Dr Feather told Newshub Kiwis were "a little bit on the back foot" and maybe thought "'oh hang on, this isn't what we expect'."

She suggested Kiwis could be feeling the effects of 'seasonal affective disorder' or SAD, usually felt during winter months and miserable weather.

"Well, unfortunately, we didn't have to wait until winter this year to get this kind of miserable weather. So I do think that it is affecting people's energy levels and sense of well-being."

Du Plooy said there isn't solid evidence around the cause of SAD, but told Newshub research suggests it has to do with the lack of light.

And these effects may not just be felt by adults, but children too. 

"Children are very vulnerable to developing mental health difficulties as well, or feeling the effects psychologically," said Dr Feather. 

But there could be a silver lining in all of these gloomy and trying times: post-traumatic growth. 

Dr Feather said post-traumatic growth comes from moments people are forced to spring into action to protect themselves, their homes, whanau and friends. 

"For some, this is going to build resilience and kind of help people feel a bit stronger and that they are feeling empowered to help others."

Du Plooy echoed that. He told Newshub people will be tested and find situations really hard, but come through the other end stronger.

"Now that I've come through this I find I'm a stronger person, I'm better for it, I've got more coping skills, I've realised I could go beyond what I knew I could." 

Du Plooy said humans are often quick to underestimate how flexible and adaptable we are.

"We are not always tested or pressured into situations where we have to tap into those resources until we find ourselves there."

Du Plooy said if people are put through challenging situations again, they can fall back on the tools they learnt previously. 

"I've seen the community context that is triggered in that situation, how people really care and reach out."

"Controlling the controllables" 

Du Plooy said although we can't control what the weather does, we can control how we react and how we respond. 

"Controlling the controllables is the best we can do and knowing that these things don't last forever, it has to change. At some point the weather has to shift, the sun has to come out."

He said taking control of what you can do to make the situation better will help, and people could even draw on what they did during the COVID-19 lockdowns.

Some advice: 

  • Exercise: Du Plooy said exercise has been proven to release endorphins so "it's a natural mood booster".
  • Try not to isolate: "Socialising and seeking support can be very valuable. Connect with people that you know who are important to you."
  • Practising mindfulness: Du Plooy said mindfulness can "really help to promote a positive mindset and ground you in the moment".
  • Enjoyable activities: "Things that make you feel a sense of accomplishment are really helpful." 
  • Healthy lifestyle: "A healthy diet and good amount of sleep."

Du Plooy said it is very easy to fall into negative thoughts, but encouraged people to challenge negative thinking. 

"People find that it's sometimes difficult to do, but if you get into a habit of challenging it, especially if you feel your mood has dropped, that can also be helpful."