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Sunshine matters a lot to mental health; temperature, pollution, rain not so much

Your day might be filled with irritatingly hot temperatures, thick air pollution and maybe even pockets of rainclouds, but that won’t necessarily get you down. If you’re able to soak up enough sun, your level of emotional distress should remain stable. Take away sun time, though, and your distress can spike. This applies to the clinical population at large, not just those diagnosed with Seasonal Affective Disorder.

“That’s one of the surprising pieces of our research,” said Mark Beecher, clinical professor and licensed psychologist in BYU Counseling and Psychological Services. “On a rainy day, or a more polluted day, people assume that they’d have more distress. But we didn’t see that. We looked at solar irradiance, or the amount of sunlight that actually hits the ground. We tried to take into account cloudy days, rainy days, pollution . . . but they washed out. The one thing that was really significant was the amount of time between sunrise and sunset.”Therapists should be aware that winter months will be a time of high demand for their services. With fewer sun time hours, clients will be particularly vulnerable to emotional distress. Preventative measures should be implemented on a case-by-case basis.

The study, which was published in the Journal of Affective Disorders, started with a casual conversation that piqued Beecher’s professional curiosity.

“Mark and I have been friends and neighbors for years, and we often take the bus together,” said Lawrence Rees, a physics professor at BYU. “And of course you often talk about mundane things, like how are classes going? How has the semester been? How ’bout this weather? So one day it was kind of stormy, and I asked Mark if he sees more clients on these days. He said he’s not sure, it’s kind of an open question. It’s hard to get accurate data.”

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