Psyching the Zietgeist:
Current Culture Through a Mental Health Lens


Can Weather Bring Us Together? How Chats About the Weather May Be Emotionally Regulating

It happens every year in Seattle. The big yellow orb in the sky crawls out from its 10-month sabbatical and shines brilliantly on all below. People who normally wouldn’t even look at each other as they pass on the street not only glance up, but…smile! Almost every conversation on those days starts with, “Isn’t it a beautiful day?” Every year I look forward to this phenomenon, and also am so curious about it. What is it about weather that it changes our moods so broadly?

This doesn’t seem to happen with just the sun. This past year Seattle experienced what was appropriately described as “Snowmeggedon”. The entire area fell mercy to a blanket of snow that disrupted every normal daily rhythm. During that experience I also noticed that weather was the topic of conversation everywhere I went. It was as if it was the only thing going on in our immediate area, and our immediate weather experience seemed to temporarily be our exclusive experience of the world.  I noticed my own mind felt snowed in. I was constantly checking the weather reports and checking in with local friends.

It turns out that extreme weather carries its own psychological experience that is rooted in community. In the article The Psychology of Extreme Weather, Dr. Alan Stewart, who studies the psychology of weather and climate at the University of Georgia, observes that talking to each other helps us process our concerns and feelings about the weather we are experiencing. He maintains that sharing our common experience of the weather results in a coping mechanism. What is so powerful about local weather is that it connects you with people who are used to the same external weather situation you are. This puts some interesting context to how we experience our local weather. For us in Seattle, snow (and sunshine for that matter) is more rare, so when it appears we are navigating it in the context of our local geographical land. When another person can relate to, and understand our experience, we often feel more emotionally calm and known.

So next time you talk about the weather locally, you may simultaneously be regulating part of your emotional experience as well as being savvy on the latest forecast – how’s that for small talk?

by Janelle Chandler

Self-Care in Turbulent Times

In the current political climate, many of us find ourselves switching between wanting to know everything that is going on and desiring nothing more than tuning out all political news and conversation.  While there are multiple factors that can contribute to such mixed feelings, we can point to few elements.

First, as social beings, we are all susceptible to anything that hints at or announces expulsion from a community, also referred to as “belonging threats.”  A broad range of groups have been targeted by the current administration — women, Muslims, people of color, LGBTQ individuals, immigrants, disabled people; none are welcomed in the new version of America, and many feel their rights and safety are threatened.  Disenfranchised groups are suffering more.  Some are fighting with conservative family members, others are facing increased hate in the streets, most are consuming news about such threats.

In addition, the new administration’s rhetoric, with its “alternative facts,” and the preponderance of fake news have the same effect as gaslighting, a device of psychological control common in abusive relationships.  Gaslighting involves manipulation to induce heightened doubt in the victim.  Creating multiple untruths and promoting them as true causes people to question their own sense of reality.  Adding to that fear and confusion, the rapid and dramatic changes being implemented may create a frantic desire to track every new dictum, appointment, or tweet.

Fear of the unknown and a sense of overwhelm can result in heightened anxiety while feelings of powerlessness and worthlessness can lead to depression.  No matter how much or little you may be struggling yourself, you can counter these effects by experimenting with some of the following recommendations.

1)  Limit your consumption of media.  This might mean limiting your news to one or two trusted sources, limiting the amount of time you spend reading the news each day, or some mixture of these.  It might also entail reading only two or three political articles a day and following that up with a palate-cleanser of something more uplifting, such as the features offered on this site — https://www.positive.news/

2)  Limit your social media activity.  While social media can provide a way to connect with others, it can also be a source of intense frustration, fruitless conversations, and fake news.  If you find your interactions with social media are creating more stress in your daily life, consider giving yourself time limits, customizing your feed, reducing weekly use, and/or limiting yourself to one platform.

3)  Stay connected in real life.  Talk to friends, family, and co-workers.  Say hello to people on the street or chat with your bank teller, your barista, your grocery cashier.  This can directly counter those belonging threats as well as keep you grounded in the realities of everyday life.  Some further suggestions along these lines can be found here — http://gratefulness.org/blog/five-small-gestures-gratitude-counteract-fear-violence/

4)  If you are feeling overwhelmed and helpless, choose a cause and spend time connecting with organizations who support that cause:  donate, volunteer, make phone calls.  Trust that there are people fighting on all fronts, so you don’t have to do everything.  You can pick your battles.  Here’s one place you might start — https://loveisaction.us/Resources/

5)  If you are frightened and confused, educate yourself.  Authoritarianism thrives on fear and misinformation.  You can find many excellent resources online that explain our legal system and government structure.  Here are two to get you started: https://www.talksonlaw.com  and  https://www.lawcornell.edu

6)  Keep laughing.  It’s especially important during difficult times to find space for joy, for play, for humor.  Watch videos of baby animals, try laughter yoga, go to a comedy show, read a humorous novel.  There’s a reason satire and political comedy are so popular.

7)  Seek experiences of awe and wonder.  These experiences remind us of beauty and help us continue to find meaning in our daily lives.  Go for a hike, look up in the trees as you walk through a park, read poetry, go to the art museum, see live music, theatre, or dance.  

We all need encouragement and greater self-care when our stress increases.   It can help to write reminders in your calendar or on your to-do list.  However you do it, whether in the forms suggested above or in some other way that speaks to you, make time to give yourself the support you need.

by Brandy Parris