Why wind drives people crazy

by Marc Wilson / 20 May, 2018

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There are few treatises on the psychology of the wind, but there's no doubt it's a stressor.

Wellington can get a bit windy. I’ve heard it suggested that you can spot the Wellingtonians when they visit Auckland, because they’re the ones toppling over on Queen St without something to lean into.

I was thinking about the wind after one of those nights when you lie awake repeating to yourself, “Please let the roof stay on. Please let the roof stay on.”

Wellington has an average daily wind speed at least a third higher than that of Chicago, with which it shares the nickname “Windy City”. In the book New Zealand Wit & Wisdom, compiled by Jim Weir, there are numerous references to our capital’s wind, including a 100-year-old excerpt from Sydney’s Bulletin that states: “When a Wellington man’s hat is blown off, he never thinks of running after it. He just waits and collars the next one that comes along.” Ha, what Wellingtonian would wear a hat? Or carry an umbrella.

Anecdotal accounts suggest that the wind can affect our physical and psychological well-being. In terms of man-made furores, it doesn’t get more dramatic than wind turbine syndrome, the malaise reportedly experienced by those living close to wind farms. The range of more than 200 symptoms is wide and includes headaches, nausea and sleep and mood disturbances.

Without diminishing the distress felt by those who believe they experience these symptoms because of wind turbines, the consensus is that the syndrome doesn’t exist. One reason for its apparent effects is offered by Fiona Crichton, who has shown in numerous studies that the likely culprit is the nocebo effect – believing wind farms make you sick can create the experience of being ill. She has also found that educating people about this effect can alleviate the symptoms.

Fiona Crichton.

There’s a surprising lack of scholarly interest in any effect on well-being associated with naturally occurring wind. Victoria University emeritus professor Tony Taylor wrote in 1974 about the treatment of a wind-phobic woman in Wellington, something he notes is surprisingly rare even for a city “in which the wind rages”. In this case study, Taylor describes a woman’s four-year struggle with the wind that prevented her from leaving home and saw her preoccupied with watching the curtains for signs of impending wind, among other behaviours.

The genesis of this phobia? April 1968’s Cyclone Giselle, during which 51 people lost their lives in the Wahine ferry disaster. In light of the events of the storm, a phobia doesn’t seem entirely unreasonable. This story has a happy ending, though, with the woman achieving remission after several months of therapy.

But this is a rare case, and there are few treatises on the psychology of the wind. Does this mean it doesn’t really affect us? The answer is a sensible no – it can and does, but not all of us feel it to the same extent. Within the broad area of environmental psychology, wind is considered a stressor that increases our physiological and psychological arousal. This excitation may make people particularly sensitive to what’s going on around them. They may, for example, respond more aggressively than usual to otherwise trivial interactions, because they’re more on edge.

Whether we’re affected depends on our own baseline response to environmental stress. If you’re new to Wellington, you might experience the everyday wind as a threat to your normal levels of comfort, whereas a hardy Wellingtonian may get worked up only when the wind is unusually strong, even for us. Like the other night.

This article was first published in the April 7, 2018 issue of the New Zealand Listener.

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