How Extreme Heat Affects Your Mental Health

As we approach the torrid summer months, many of us are busy getting our air conditioners serviced to enjoy a safe summer ahead

We've all experienced the physical discomfort caused by soaring temperatures but did you know that extreme heat can make you prone to temper outbursts, migraines, agitation and sleep deprivation? 

Researchers studying the impact of climate change are now observing alarming correlations between heat wave conditions and mental health disorders. The World Economic Forum mentions that for every 1℃ increase in monthly average temperature, mental health-related deaths increase by 2.2%. A recent US study clearly mentions that heat can profoundly impact the mental health of people regardless of age, sex, or where they live.

Who is more vulnerable?

People with pre-existing mental health conditions and psychiatric patients are most vulnerable and it is well advised that they spend a greater part of their days in cooler areas of homes and work spaces. People with anxiety, depression, bipolar disorder, schizophrenia and dementia may experience difficulties with body temperature regulation. This also applies to those who are on antidepressants and antipsychotics. If you happen to experience an increase in symptoms please reach out to your mental health care provider who can suggest ways to ease your discomfort.

Students in highly competitive ecosystems such as medical and engineering colleges living in hostels are also at risk, particularly if they are overwhelmed by competition, peer pressure, fear of failure or have ever had suicidal thoughts. There is enough evidence to suggest a direct correlation between warmer climates and increased suicide rates. Higher temperatures affect cognitive abilities making it harder to concentrate, reduce retention and memory, lower academic productivity and increase anxiety and stress. Compassionate listening and keeping a close watch on friends and peers who appear to be depressed can bring timely relief in case they are tempted to self-harm. 

Pregnant women also need to take extra precautions during summer months. Physiological changes in their bodies coupled with extreme temperatures can increase irritability, exacerbate anxiety and cause depression. Concerns about changes in body shape, discomfort in sleeping, anticipated changes in lifestyle and increased responsibility on the baby's arrival as well as self-doubts concerning their parenting skills and capabilities can become magnified by summer stress. Wearing loose clothing, avoiding exposure to midday temperatures and finishing daily chores during cooler hours of the day can help peri and post natal women feel more comfortable. A recent UN report informs that almost one in five women will experience a mental health condition during pregnancy or in the first year after giving birth so if you don't have someone to discuss your anxieties with, please reach out to your doctor or counselor and seek medical intervention.

The elderly also need extra care during these months as prolonged exposure to high temperatures can cause confusion, disorientation and other mental symptoms. Research indicates that mortality attributed to mental and behavioral disorders increased during heat waves in the 65 to 74 year age group and in persons with schizophrenia, schizotypal, and delusional disorders. Reduced social interaction during the summer months can lead to feelings of loneliness and social isolation among the elderly and this may result in depression which in many cases remains undiagnosed. 

Heat is also known to cause sleep disturbances and insomnia in the aging population. They may wake up several times during the night to drink water because it's too hot or to urinate and then are unable to fall asleep. Poor sleep quality results in exhaustion, disturbed moods and brain fogging. Providing air conditioning and some form of social stimulation or support can keep elders socially, mentally and emotionally resilient during summer time.

There is also increasing evidence to suggest that higher temperatures increase cravings and addictions in those afflicted with substance use disorder. Extreme heat can drive addicts to reach out for the bottle or drug more easily and frequently. Dehydration and drug related metabolism can cause complications, increased intoxication and overuse. Staying well hydrated and seeking help to overcome addictions are most critical for this group of people.

How social safety is compromised during heat waves

Human behavior patterns are also adversely affected during peak summers. A study conducted in Delhi indicated that there was a significant increase in crimes including assault, rape and murder during the hotter months as higher temperatures seem to increase aggressive and impulsive behaviors. There is some evidence to suggest that heat alters production and balance of happy hormone serotonin and the aggression causing hormone testosterone which perhaps explains the increase in violence. Post Covid economic stressors caused by loss of employment and financial hardships could be another reason for the increase in theft and burglary rates besides the aforementioned crimes. 

Studies also suggest a surge in road rage incidents during hot weather conditions because of increased frustration, aggression and impatience. The combination of heat and humidity can make matters worse for those stuck in traffic jams for long periods.

How rising temperatures impact our emotions

Researchers are also finding that extreme heat and wellbeing are more foes than friends because too much heat exposure alters our biology in negative ways making us angrier, more impatient, and stressed out. It simultaneously shrinks our capacity to exhibit positive emotions such as empathy, kindness, happiness and joy. While those living in colder climates may enjoy the occasional hot holiday breaks, people exposed for longer periods to extreme heat may find it difficult to experience altruistic emotions. Perhaps this is why mystics, saints and yogis preferred to live in mountainous regions.

So far, scientists and researchers have only looked at the tip of the climate iceberg to comprehend how heat impacts our mind and psychology. A lot more work must be done before we can understand exactly how brain chemistry is affected by extreme temperatures. The Psychiatrist Times warns us that heat waves are now considered the deadliest weather events, exceeding hurricanes, lightning, tornadoes, floods, and earthquakes combined. Perhaps architects need to urgently explore innovative design solutions to make our homes, buildings and cities naturally cooler without air-conditioning to help reduce violence and rising incidence of mental health issues. 

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Suzy Singh Mental Health


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