Sun exposure linked to lower levels of distress and depression

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Sun exposure contributes to having less mental health issues, finds a new study from Brigham Young University. Correlations between weather and mental health have been explored by scientists in the past, with findings suggesting that certain weather elements, such as precipitation and air pressure, can lead to emotional distress. The current study illustrates that with enough sun exposure, distress caused by weather elements can decrease.

According to the study, reducing the amount of time spent under the sun can cause distress levels to spike. Researchers further explained that getting enough sun exposure may keep stress levels balanced.

Over a six-year period, patients who walked into the counseling center at Brigham Young University were examined for signs of distress. The results were compared to the weather in order to posit a correlation between weather and emotional imbalance. Clients were asked permission to include their results in the study prior to filling out a questionnaire detailing their mental health.

In order to accurately gather weather data, the study relied on the results of the university’s Physics and Astronomy Weather Station, which collects pollution data from the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency.

The large sample size generated analytical difficulties. To resolve this issue, researchers split up the sample size in smaller groups of 500 people chosen at random. The researchers tested for various independent variables such as absolute pressure, humidity, rainfal,  sunset, sunrise and wind chill. A total of 19 different variables were chosen and analyzed. In order to determine the effect of each independent variable, each analysis was conducted over a trial of one hour, four hours, one day and seven days.

After the researchers received the questionnaires from clients and analyzed the results from the weather station, they were able to draw conclusions between various meteorological concepts and emotional imbalances. The researchers drew the conclusion that as the amount of time spent in the sun decreased, emotional distress increased.

The results support the concept of seasonal affective disorder, where shifts in seasons directly and negatively impact mood. Other weather elements, aside from exposure to sunshine, did not affect the moods of the participants in the study, which may suggest that human beings are particularly adaptive or resilient to these meteorological measures.

The study took place over a six-year period, with participants’ moods being monitored along with the weather each day. Photo by: Agata Poniatowski

The study notes that, “Although it is often assumed that outside elements can greatly affect mood or affect, these results present the possibility that more credit needs to be given to people’s ability to cope and adapt.”

Although the data were collected from a large sample size, researchers discredited the validity of the information gathered due to the geographic location of the study. The particularly mountainous region where the study was conducted is subject to an inversion effect, in which surrounding temperatures increase with increasing altitude, which leads to greater pollution levels. In normal circumstances, temperature would decrease with increasing altitude. Researchers speculate that this could have altered the results of the experiment.

This study’s conclusion indicates that clients would primarily face greater emotional distress during the winter, when fewer hours of sunshine are available. Increased sun time also corresponds to fewer thoughts of suicide among participants and clients.

The results of the study also suggest that medical practitioners and therapists should encourage more preventative measures during the winter, when the sun is out for fewer hours of the day.