Why Does Feeling Warm Make Us Feel So Good?
Be it wrapping up in a blanket, a tight embrace or simply the onset of balmier weather, woo speaks to experts to unpack the link between warmth and wellness
image Aftersun / Pastel
words Lucy O'Brien
Rise and shine! Spring has officially sprung. We’ve just surpassed the March equinox, which means the sun has migrated across the equator and is now making its way from the south of the globe to start shining some glorious waves of warmth on the north of our planet, including our rainy little island.
Most of us spent the past few weeks checking the weather app every day, counting down the days until the temperature creeps above 10 degrees again and praying you get to leave work with an ounce of daylight left to savour on your commute home. Well, now that the sun is literally edging its way closer to the UK, that much needed dose of serotonin is on the horizon. But what is it about this annual phenomenon – the start of spring, longer, brighter days and warmer weather – that makes us feel better upon its arrival?
It’s time to get philosophical. Spring is pretty much universally recognised as the season of renewal – animals come out of hibernation, plants and flowers begin to blossom, and we humans begin to adjust our behaviours to accommodate for this environmental flux: embracing spring fashion, eating alfresco, spending more time outdoors – you know the drill. In fact, a 2016 study found that the longer the sun was shining during the day, the less mental distress people experienced. But, as it turns out, this link between warmth, light and wellbeing goes far beyond the aesthetic, and answers to far more scientific explanations. Is it the promise of hot girl summer? Festival season excitement? All a placebo? Let’s investigate.
The science behind warmth and happiness
Scientifically speaking, our body’s positive response to warmth is usually due to the exposure to sunlight that comes with it. “Sunlight is thought to increase the brain’s release of serotonin, which can boost the moods and help people feel calm and focused. Without exposure to the sun, your serotonin levels can dip,” says hormone specialist, Dr Martin Kinsella of BioID Health. This is opposed to the release of the calming hormone melatonin, which is the body’s response to darker environments, that can help us sleep.
But beyond just releasing the happy hormone, sunlight plays an essential role in maintaining our health and energy levels: enter Vitamin D. Dr Kinsella explains that “it is also the only vitamin that is a hormone; for this reason it does play a large part in our emotions and helps regulate mood.” Studies have shown that low levels of vitamin D can be linked to higher levels of depression, and that those suffering from Vitamin D deficiency might benefit from taking supplements. “Your body naturally produces vitamin D when skin is exposed to UVB rays (so, sunlight and things like tanning beds). It helps regulate the amount of calcium and phosphate in the body. These nutrients are needed to keep bones, teeth and muscles healthy,” Dr Kinsella adds.
The psychology behind warmth and wellness
Okay, but what if warmth actually alters our brain chemistry? Well, as it turns out, it just might – and this can apply as much to a simple moment of physical touch as it can a day spent soaking up the sun. According to therapist Natasha Rae Adams, member of the British Association for Counselling and Psychotherapy, “we crave environments that make us feel safe and supported.” Retweet.
Okay, but seriously. “Being in environments in which these needs aren’t met can raise stress levels and how safe we feel in environments can be impacted by many factors such as: physical dangers, aesthetics, sensorial aspects, the people within the environment and familiarity,” Adams says.
“Extreme temperatures, both hot and cold, can have negative psychological impacts as they ultimately act as stressors which the brain receives as a danger to safety. However, warm temperatures can increase our mood as, biologically, the body can spend less energy regulating core body temperature, leaving more energy to spend on other tasks. Perhaps also there is something womb-like about warmer temperatures that provide us with a feeling of safety,” she adds.
And this sense of warmth goes beyond our climate – something as simple as a hug or even holding hands can also boost our mood. “Physical touch is incredibly important in the human bonding process,” says Adams. “Skin is the largest organ and has many receptors which send messages to the brain that impact our hormone levels, namely oxytocin.”
This hormone, which lives in our brain, gets released in response to sensory stimulation and interactive behaviours. A study from the National Institute of Biotechnology Information found that the release of oxytocin leads to “increased levels of social interaction, well-being and anti-stress effects.”
But it’s okay if you’re still feeling down
All this being said, it’s okay if your mood seems to stagnate or worsen in warm environments. Sure, warmer, brighter days can significantly lift your mood for many, but it isn’t always a given. Needless to say, your mood can and most likely will fluctuate on a regular basis regardless of the weather.
In fact, for some people, the warmer months may trigger symptoms of Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD), which is a type of depression that is driven by particular seasons of the year. It is a common misconception that SAD only manifests during winter, due to our association with the cold and dry months with loneliness and lack of activity. But this is not always the case. "SAD is often referred to as the ‘winter blues’, which is actually a misleading term as SAD can be experienced in the warmer months also,” says Adams. “Research around SAD isn’t necessarily at a point of being entirely conclusive, but we believe that SAD is triggered by both changes in weather and temperature.
“In the warmer months, people can suffer from SAD due to warm temperatures and humidity which can increase feelings of fatigue,” she goes on.
“Furthermore, more light in the summer months can sometimes cause alterations to our usual routines and circadian rhythms [our natural 24-hour sleep-wake cycle]. The sun rising earlier in the morning and setting later at night can disrupt established sleeping patterns which can contribute to depression.”
Of course, for many people, those extra hours of daylight and increasingly optimistic weather forecasts are a recurring source of happiness as spring rolls around each year. If this you, go lap up those UV rays (with factor 50 on, mind you!) But if you’re not a summer-enthusiast, and thrive tucked up inside as the moody, dark evenings of autumn settle in, there’s a lot of happiness to soak up there, too. Whether you're curled up in a fluffy blanket, hugging a loved-one, Vitamin-D chasing around the globe or simply basking in the arrival of spring, our obsession with feeling warm is basically just one giant, fickle human craving for safety and comfort. Brb, just grabbing my hot water bottle.
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