One evening last spring I was in Costa Rica, spellbound as a thunderstorm pummeled our open-air bungalow. I sat with five friends in pitch darkness, a teak roof the only thing separating us from the storm.
At some point during the flood, the usual tomfoolery of my anxious mind quieted — then disappeared altogether. I hugged my knees and wished it would rain forever.
For as long as I can remember I’ve been a nervous wreck. At 14, I spent every night for a year lying wide awake in bed anticipating a catastrophic earthquake that never came. As an adult, I’m burdened by impulsivity and I often exhaust myself ruminating.
But when it rains, my busy mind finds calm.
I share this affection with my friend Renee Reed. We’ve been friends for a while but it wasn’t until recently that we discovered we both love the rain. Renee, like millions of U.S. adults, experiences anxiety and depression.
“My anxiety is often a build-up to depression,” she says. “When it’s raining, I feel calm. And so I never get to that point of depression.”
Her and I also share a complicated relationship with sunny weather.
“It’s blasphemy to say what I’m about to say but I don’t love [sunny days],” she says. “I always get disappointed. I never have enough time to do all the things the sun means I’m supposed to do — be productive, go camping, hike as much as I should.”
And it isn’t just us. There are mini communities of people all over the internet who experience rain as an antidote to their anxiety and depression. I read these threads with my nose close to the screen, feeling as though I have found my people.
Major depressive disorder with seasonal pattern (formerly known as seasonal affective disorder or SAD) causes depression symptoms in some people during the gloomy winter months. The lesser known reverse of seasonal affective disorder refers to feeling depressed during the brighter summer months.
If these weather-related disorders exist, could there be a scientific explanation for rain positively affecting mental health?
I find listening to rain fall is a visceral experience. It feels like each drop massages my whole body.
I often listen to rainstorms while I work to drown out the chorus of distracting thoughts competing for my attention. This unique rhythm can be used in many areas of life.
“Rain has a regular, predictable pattern,” says Emily Mendez, MS, EdS. “Our brain processes it as a calming, non-threatening noise. Which is why there are so many relaxation and meditation videos that feature the sound of rain.”
For Renee, rain noises are a staple in her daily meditation practice. “I don’t always want to be outside in the rain but I really enjoy reading a book by a window when it’s raining. That’s probably my ideal space in life,” she says. “Which is why it’s easy for me to use it while meditating. It’s a calming presence.”
‘Pink noise’ has been getting buzz lately as the newest innovation in sleep therapy. A mixture of high and low frequencies, pink noise sounds a lot like falling water.
It’s much more soothing than the acute, hissing-like quality of white noise. A small 2012 study found pink noise substantially improved the sleep of participants by reducing brain wave complexity.
Another hypothesis for why the rain elicits such strong positive emotion in some people has to do with how our sense of smell interacts with our memories.
According to a 2016 study, odor-evoked memories are more emotional and evocative than memories triggered by our other senses.
“Smell is first processed by the olfactory bulb,” says Dr. Bryan Bruno, MD, medical director at MidCity TMS. “This has direct connections to the two brain areas that are most strongly connected to emotion and memory formation — the amygdala and hippocampus.”
It could be that those of us who love the rain associate it with positive feelings from our past. Maybe that sweet, subtle fragrance that tints the air before and after a rain brings us back to a time we were warm and safe.
Like many emotional experiences, my rain affinity is tough to articulate. Renee feels similarly. “I know [the feeling] exists in me but there’s a finer point to it that I don’t know how to explain.”
In my quest to find out why this might be, I stumbled upon something I’ve always been curious about: negative ions.
Though there isn’t conclusive research on the subject, one study found negative ions had a positive effect on people with SAD. The participants were exposed to high-density negative ions every morning for five weeks. Over half of the participants reported their SAD symptoms had lessened by the end of the study.
Negative ions are created when large amounts of water molecules crash into each other. Waterfalls, ocean waves, rain storms — they all make negative ions. You cannot see, smell, or touch these microscopic particles but we can inhale them.
Some believe that when negative ions reach our bloodstream they create a chemical reaction, thereby alleviating feelings of stress and anxiety.
Another small study combined Tai Chi and negative ions as a treatment for high cholesterol. The study found participants’ bodies responded better to the Tai Chi when they inhaled negative oxygen ions from a generator.
Try these pink noise machines and negative ion generators:
- Analog Pink/White Noise Signal Generator
- IonPacific ionbox, Negative Ion Generator
- Kavalan HEPA Air Purifier, Negative Ion Generator
- Remember, the research on negative ion therapy is slim. While household negative ion generators do help purify the air, there’s no conclusive evidence that they alleviate symptoms of anxiety and depression. However, some people have reported benefits, and so it may be worth trying if nothing else has worked.
But for some, rain creates anxiety
Of course, what’s good for one person is often the opposite for another. For many, the rain and its accompanying elements — wind, thunder, and lightning — provoke anxiety and feelings of helplessness.
In some parts of the world, storms carry the potential for serious danger. But even when the potential for harm is low, it’s common for a storm to provoke anxious feelings and cause more severe symptoms of panic.
The Anxiety and Depression Association of America put together a set of helpful tips for storm-related anxiety. Some of their suggestions include:
- Prepare you and your family by making an evacuation plan.
- Share how you’re feeling with loved ones.
- Stay up-to-date on the weather forecast.
- Seek help from a mental health professional.
It feels good to be understood
So, is there a concrete scientific explanation for why rain helps soothe anxiety? Not exactly. But for me, it was powerful just to know there were other rain lovers out there. Finding this unlikely connection strengthened my tether to humanity. It just made me feel good.
Renee has a simple take on it: “Water can fit into any circumstance. It’s big and wild but at the same time very calm. It’s incredibly magical.”
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Ginger Wojcik works on Healthline’s production team. She loves surfing, writing, and breakfast — in that order. Follow more of her work on Medium.