It rained and it rained and it rained. Piglet told himself that never in all his life, and he was goodness knows how old – three, was it, or four? – never had he seen so much rain. Days and days and days. (A. A. Milne, 1926)
This opening to an A. A. Milne short story will be familiar to anybody who has been living in the UK recently. And forget days and days: it has been going on for months. April, the traditional month of showers, saw twice its average rainfall this year. We had the wettest June since records began. And a month’s worth of rain fell in 24 hours in some parts of the country at the beginning of July. Many have pointed out the irony that the unending rain began to fall almost directly after the government declared an official state of drought.
The rain can put a damper on even the sunniest disposition, and there is concern that it may be set to continue as we head towards the UK’s equivalent of Groundhog Day on July 15th. According to ancient proverb, if it rains on St. Swithun’s day we will be set for 40 more days of rain, which will take us almost into September. There is hope though for those who are sick of the rain: If it doesn’t pour on July 15th we’re supposed to get 40 days rain free.
St Swithun’s day if thou dost rain
For forty days it will remain
St Swithun’s day if thou be fair
For forty days ’twill rain nae mare
According to my expert sources (okay wikipedia) there may some meteorological support for this old superstition. The jet stream (a ribbon of air high in the atmosphere) generally sets into a relatively stable pattern around July which remains until late August. If it lies to the North then the high pressure is able to get to us from the continent, whereas if is lies across the south of the British Isles we get the Atlantic and Arctic weather systems. The Guardian article on the current weather concurs that the jet stream has pushed us into a blocked pattern of seemingly endless cold and wet.
Like Piglet in the story, many of us are feeling the impact of all this rain on ours moods, but is there any evidence that the weather can impact our emotions in this way? Certainly environmental psychology has demonstrated links between heat and humidity and aggressiveness and high rates of crime. I’m not sure if there’s any related dip in criminal activity in the kind of rainy periods we’re currently experiencing.
Also we know that up to 5% of people in northern climates seem to suffer from what has been termed Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD) whereby they experience depression in the winter months, associated with the short days and lack of light. Although there have been suggestions that a strong cultural belief in the impact of weather on mood may be involved in increasing rates of this diagnosis.
Whilst the link between bad weather and low mood is not so well supported by research, there is some evidence that pleasant weather in Spring improves mood and cognitive function after the dark, cold Winter months. This supports many people’s experience of a lifting of the spirits in Springtime, and it may be the lack of this usual uplift that many of us are now experiencing.
Of course there are several different reasons why we might feel worse in cold and rainy weather. There may be a direct impact of the lack of warmth and sunshine. However there is also very likely an additional element that we are likely to spend less time outside when it is cool and wet. This may mean that we engage in less physical activity (which we know to have an important impact on health and emotional well-being). We may also be less likely to spend time with friends than we might do in good weather, and friendship is another buffer against low mood.
So, if we do find ourselves heading into another 40 days of rain on Sunday, what things might we do to help us to ride it out?
The main thing is to ensure that the cold wet weather doesn’t have a knock-on effect on time outside, physical activity, or time with friends. That way it will only be the direct impact of the lack of warmth and sunlight which we experience, which may well be relatively weak. Challenging our own beliefs in the impact of weather on mood may also be valuable.
In terms of time outside we can decide to embrace the rain by getting into wet weather gear and doing the things that we want to do anyway. I found that buying a pair of wellies and rediscovering the childish joy of jumping in puddles was a good antidote to rain-jadedness. Raindrops on water are often calming to watch so we can take a trip to the nearest pond or reservoir to observe them falling for a while. If we spend time watching the rain, just as when we spend time observing our own difficult feelings rather than just trying to escape them, we will notice the variations and the beginnings and endings that occur in what previously seemed to be constant and unremitting. Perhaps we can learn to appreciate the diverse nature of rain: from the soothing mist of drizzle to the powerful beauty of a sudden storm.
Additionally we might learn to make the most of any brief glimpses of brightness, getting ourselves outside when they happen. Perhaps workplaces and schools could increase flexibility around when people take breaks to encourage an approach which is more tuned into the weather and less planned out in advance. Who knows what beneficial side-effects such a different approach to work might have long term? Again an analogy with moods can be helpful here: mindfulness suggests learning to appreciate brief lifts in mood without trying to grab hold of them and make them permanent. By practising such an approach to to the rain we might find it easier to apply to our internal weather systems.
In relation to physical activity it is worth thinking about what we can do inside (e.g. dancing, table tennis, swimming, indoor climbing) as well as what can still be done outside in spite of the rain (e.g. walking, running and cycling). Certainly some of the sweatier forms of exercise can be more pleasant in the rain than in the blazing sunshine.
Finally, we can consider how to ensure that we see as much of other people as we do during sunnier summers. In the A. A. Milne story that I began with Piglet thinks that the rain would have been fine if only it had started when he was round at one of his friend’s houses and he had been flooded in with them. We might replace summer barbecues and picnics with indoor meals, movie marathons, and boardgames, or get a cheap gazebo and have them in spite of the rain as my family did last weekend. A barbecue in a rainstorm turns out to be a lot more memorable than the usual kind!