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Too Hot to Handle: Heat and Mental Wellness

June 30, 2021

Well, I’m Hot Blooded/ Check it and see

I’ve got a fever/ Of a hundred and three

(Foreigner, likely NOT singing about a Heat Dome)

My blood is boiling!  Maybe you’re steaming mad.  People can be so hot-headed.  

But hey, be cool.  Chill out!

Heat is often associated with intense moodiness and less frustration tolerance.  We get angry easier when it’s hot and we sleep poorly.  Kids can be lethargic and our productivity drops.  What is going on?

First, we do know that the heat has an effect on our mental wellness, and it’s not always positive.  While most of us enjoy a moderate and mild summer day, once the temperatures start to exceed a comfortable range, things change quickly. There can be an increase of approximately 8% in admissions to hospitals for mental health issues such as depression, anxiety, psychotic disorders, etc. (the latter possibly due to an interaction between heat and antipsychotic medications and a specific issue related to how people with schizophrenia experience temperature – which is why we see some people with psychotic disorders bundling up in warm clothes in hot temperatures).  

Violent crimes also increase (well, all crime rates seem to increase, but specifically violent crimes, often targeted towards women and children).  One study found an increase in violent crimes of 6% on average on days with  temperatures over 29 degrees.

While violence remains comparatively rare in general, most of us may experience a decrease in our frustration tolerance and are more irritable and short-fused than usual.  Increased heat often results in decreased memory, poor concentration, less ability to focus, and impaired problem solving skills.  We are all kind of stumbling around like exhausted post-sleepover kids, irritable, cranky, unable to focus, etc.  Kids and adults can all experience sleep problems. It can be harder to fall and stay asleep, which also results in poor concentration, work absenteeism, more substance abuse, and so on.

A part of these challenges may be associated with Summer Seasonal Affective Disorder.  SAD is usually associated with not enough sunlight in winter, resulting in lower levels of serotonin and dopamine neurochemicals that enhance mood).  Too much sunlight turns off our melatonin production (associated with relaxed mood/ sleep), so some people can actually have Summer SAD.  Symptoms are similar to more traditional SAD – fatigue, physical pain, lack of concentration, feeling down, and so on.

Additionally, income is a factor.  Wealthier people can live and work in air conditioned environments; people with less income tend to have less access to AC and other cooling opportunities, so therefore experience more heat/ exhaustion.  Another significant factor in many urban centres is that they can become Urban Heat Islands.  Asphalt and concrete reflect heat, and there may be limited green spaces and open areas to allow for natural cooling to occur.

So, how can we manage our emotional response to heat when we can’t escape the heat itself?

  • TRY to find ways to escape heat, even briefly (cool showers, lots of water, go to mall/ AC environments, fans, etc.)
  • Feel comfortable saying, “I’m really moody – it’s too hot to regulate my body AND my emotions right now – nothing personal!”  It gives the other person a reason, not an excuse, to help them understand how you are feeling, because we’ve ALL felt that way at some point!
  • Find time to sleep when possible – the siesta has some benefits!
  • Get some distance – overcrowding AND heat is a dangerous combination, so try to find opportunities to separate yourself from others from time to time
  • Seeking dark rooms: People who have summer-onset Major Depressive Disorder with seasonal pattern may be advised to spend more time in darkened rooms. Blackout blinds and the tried and true method of putting tinfoil shiny side out on west-facing windows can help!
  • Movies are a great way to experience a cool environment that is also quite dark.  And we all know that there is something about movie theatre pop that is particularly cooling!
  • Getting help: Talking it out with a psychologist can help you manage stress, find healthy coping strategies, and learn how to stay positive. It can also help you manage the FOMO — or fear of missing out — you might feel when your friends are talking about activities and experiences they’re enjoying while you are staying home trying to cool off a bit.

Given the global climate patterns that are suggesting that hotter summers will be increasingly common, we need to ensure that we are also advocating for mental wellness in preparing strategies to deal with global climate change.  But in the meantime, have a popsicle and take care of your mental wellness so that you can become a part of the long-term solution.

Copyright Macdonald Psychology Group 2021

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