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Stay Away from that Thermostat!

January 31, 2008 By:
Frank Rosci, JE Feature
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At this time of year, as the thermometer continues its seasonable drop, the colder air that comes with the change has people changing, too -- not simply from shorts and T-shirts to long pants and sweaters, but for some, in the way they interact with others.

Can cold weather really make people miserable and mean to each other, and unsettling to deal with and be around?

Are normally well-adjusted people prone to turn into and act like Grinches when the temperature dips into the realm of freezing numbers?

To get a better idea of the highs and lows that come with the cold, several area experts in human behavior expressed their views of, and offered their advice to, "cold sufferers" and those they offend -- and how all of those involved can make nice when the temperature drops.

Numerous studies have examined the effects a gray day -- with its lesser amounts of light -- can have on a person's mood. The evidence can be seen in a condition known as Seasonal Affective Disorder, or SAD, identified in the 1980s. The condition deals with melatonin, and seems to affect no more than 5 percent of the population.

"While temperature seems to have less of an effect on mood and behavior, cold weather, just as hot weather, can affect some people negatively," according to David Baron, D.O., professor and chair of psychiatry and behavioral science at Temple University's School of Medicine and Hospital.

"Some people simply can't stand cold weather, and some can't stand hot weather. In each case, the changes can make them a little more cranky, and in these cases and others about temperature and weather preferences, it's very idiosyncratic.

"Some people just feel more comfortable in one condition or the other," he said, adding that "while the body can't tolerate much change in temperature, the brain keeps the body's core temperature in a very narrow range."

He observed that the automobile industry has tapped into just how sensitive many people have become to cold and hot by building cars that have separate controls for air-conditioning and heat.

"Much of someone's preference about temperature is related to what the temperature means to that person, the connections made between what someone links with cold. For example," he continued, "it may be that someone has a positive (or negative) memory of the cold because it brings snow, while the high humidity, common in Philadelphia, may influence someone to hate hot weather."

Temperature change also can mean a change of pace, as people go from the generally more active days of summer and fall to the generally quieter times of winter. For some, that can mean becoming more withdrawn, and perhaps being perceived as being less friendly and less agreeable.

Older ... and Colder?
"In general," said Baron, "the older someone gets, the less tolerant to cold that person becomes," which may explain why so many older people seek warmer environments, such as Florida and Arizona, rather than Minnesota.

Ways to adjust to the "cold combat" that can happen to families, he recommended, are to identify how someone reacts to cold, as well as to heat and to light, and then decide "at what level to manipulate my own environment, while learning to live within it and be sensitive to others' needs, too, so little arguments don't become bigger ones."

In the spirit of compromise and "appropriate negotiations in the house," said Baron, some of the steps might include adjusting the heater's thermostat to everyone's satisfaction.

At Thomas Jefferson University, Michael Rosenthal, M.D., of the department of family and community medicine, discussed the emotional and physical effects cold weather can have.

"Some people may act differently in colder weather. They won't go outside, for example, and won't even walk to the market because of the cold," he said. "Emotionally, they may tend to isolate themselves more and engage in less social interaction, and that could lead to friction at home and elsewhere.

"People can be on opposite sides in almost any issue in a relationship, so cold weather could cause some stress for partners."

If people don't like the cold, they may also curtail healthful activities, being less likely to exercise, he added.

Most do respond to social interaction, according to the doctor, because "we're social beings, and not spending time with one another is missed by most people."

The cold can be especially hard for those who have issues in their lives to begin with, Rosenthal acknowledged: "If you're someone who tends to get down, first do what it takes to accept the fact that it's cold outside -- set up some times to do things with family and friends, and give yourself an incentive or reward to get over the hurdle.

"Having a specific plan and specific approach in place can help to make people feel better."

Dr. Joel Schwartz, chief of psychiatry at Abington Memorial Hospital, reported how someone reacts to cold weather depends on that person's internal temperature system.

"It reminds me of mothers and babies, and how each reacts to cold," he said. "For example, if a baby reacts negatively to cold and positively to heat, the mother might want the opposite to be the case, because, perhaps, she prefers cold and dislikes heat.

"But that's exactly the point; we're all different when it comes to preferring cold weather or hot weather. Basically, if you like one over the other that's fine.

"And, if you don't, that's fine, too."


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