Capital Region’s unusually cloudy season may impact mental health

ERICA MILLER/THE DAILY GAZETTE Clouds cover the sky facing east along the Mohawk River in Amsterdam on Wednesday.
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ERICA MILLER/THE DAILY GAZETTE
Clouds cover the sky facing east along the Mohawk River in Amsterdam on Wednesday.

CAPITAL REGION — New York winters have a reputation for being drab and dreary, but lately, the clouds have hardly seemed to clear.

“It definitely hasn’t been people’s imagination. It’s been quite a cloudy period here,” said National Weather Service meteorologist Joe Villani.

In Albany, two-thirds of the days since Dec. 1 have had 80 percent cloud coverage during daylight hours, according to Villani.

“It’s typical for December but usually, once we get into January we start seeing some more sunny days disperse within the cloudier days too, alternating. But in January it looks like we really only had like a couple days … where we had 50% or less cloud cover,” Villani said.

That’s thanks to trapped moisture and indirectly, because of warm temperatures.

“Usually … we’ll get these cold airmasses building in and those are usually associated with high pressure which causes sinking motion and clouds dissipate and that’s why usually we see some clear days,” Villani said.

That hasn’t happened as much this season and all these gray, overcast days can have an impact on our mental health, according to Dr. Mark Rapp, a psychiatrist, associate professor and vice chairman for clinical services and psychiatry at Albany Medical Center.

“It turns out that roughly 20 percent of everybody has what they describe as high seasonality; that is their mood tends to be worse in the winter, better in the spring and summer,” Rapp said.

“The clock in our head, the major one anyway, which lives in a place called the suprachiasmatic nucleus is largely reset by light,” Rapp said. “We have this mechanism that sort of sets our clock and makes sure our clock is accurate by perceiving the light. The less light there is, the harder it is for us to do that. When it’s overcast and winter already, it’s kind of a double whammy.”

For some people, there’s a slight change in mood and energy level. For others, especially those with seasonal affective disorder, the impact can be more noticeable.

According to Dr. Dawn Gonsalves, the behavioral health medical director with MVP Health Care and a board-certified adult psychiatrist, seasonal affective disorder is a type of depression that most commonly affects people in late fall and early winter. Symptoms include feeling sad, sleeping more but having low energy, losing interest in activities that one would otherwise enjoy and craving carbohydrate-rich foods. People may also struggle with focus and concentration, Gonsalves said.

With the added stressors of the pandemic and political/social strife, the effects of overcast days may be taking a greater toll on our mental health this season.

“I guess a good way to think about it [is] imagine any situation where you say ‘and jet lag;’ like ‘I had to do a stressful presentation and I had jet lag,’” Rapp said. “It’s going to make everything worse and it really is like jet lag. In fact, it’s essentially the same phenomenon. When the clock in your head does not match the clock in the real world, that feeling of being a little bit out of synch, and maybe even a little bit off is part of the same phenomenon we’re talking about.”

To combat these effects, some use bright light boxes or bright light therapy as a way to simulate natural light within an hour or so of waking up.

“It’s thought that the early morning light signals are more effective at advancing what’s known as our biological clock,” Gonsalves said. She recommends that anyone suffering from these symptoms speak with their primary care provider to get a diagnosis and a treatment plan.

There are also several simple ways to help regulate one’s biological clock:

  • Rest when your body feels tired
  • Exercise, even if it’s mild
  • Drink water to stay hydrated
  • Keep a routine
  • Stay connected with people you love, whether it’s virtually or in person
  • Go for a walk outside, even on cloudy days

It’s important to monitor yourself and keep an eye out for family and friends, all of whom may be affected differently.

“… these are subtle gradations,” Rapp said. “So there are people who have high seasonality, their mood is worse during the winter. There are people who have seasonal affective disorder, their mood really impacts their function during the winter, and of course, there are people who also have clinical depression. Those aren’t always that easy to tell apart. I think looking out for signs of even more serious [conditions is] worthwhile too.”

Although there may be some sunshine this weekend, according to the National Weather Service, the clouds will be back early next week. Rapp warns:  “If you do things that ought to work and they don’t, it’s probably better to get help sooner than later and that doesn’t have to be a psychiatric appointment, that can be talking to your doctor, talking to friends but definitely reach out sooner rather than later.”

NY Project Hope has an emotional support helpline that is free, anonymous and confidential to New Yorkers who need someone to talk to. Crisis counselors can be reached at 1-844-863-9314

If you’re considering suicide, the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline is available for free confidential support. The number is 1-800-273-8255.

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