"The impact of extreme heat on our mental health"
12th July 2022
So, we are experiencing a bit of a heatwave! Whilst getting out in the sunshine and enjoying the weather can bring many health benefits, extreme heat on the other hand can adversely affect those with medical health issues, the elderly, the young, the vulnerable and those with mental health issues.
Whilst the latest hot weather is not the usual for the UK, it is predicted that with current climate change these periods of extreme weather are likely to become more frequent and temperatures may increase generally over time.
Let’s explore the impact of extreme heat on our mental health, especially behavioural and psychiatric conditions, and consider some positive strategies that can help you cope with the heatwave.
Aspects of mental health that can be affected by extreme heat:
- Our moods - hot weather can make us feel less tolerant of people and situations. It can make us feel agitated, short tempered, angry, exhausted and leave us lacking motivation and enthusiasm for normal everyday tasks. It has been noted too that depressive episodes and suicidal ideation increases during extreme weather patterns, as feelings and issues can seem magnified and the heat is just another issue to deal with.
- Cognitive functioning - all of us can probably agree that our ability to think and function clearly are compromised during episodes of extreme heat. Various research has been undertaken on the effects of excessive heat and cognitive functioning, for example, Harvard observed effects on 44 students over a 12 day heatwave. It was noted that complex cognitive tasks such as working memory (through spatial span tests and pattern recognition) were significantly impaired by those experiencing heat stress.
- Our sleep patterns - extreme evening temperatures and humidity can prevent us from getting a comfortable night’s sleep. Sleep is an essential bodily regulator and important part of maintaining our wellbeing; lack of sleep quickly has adverse effects on our moods, abilities, stress levels, depression and cognition. Normal sleep onset and maintenance is triggered by a drop in core body temperature, so high temperatures and humidity can have a negative impact on achieving sleep. One disturbed night can be ok, but if this continues over several nights it can really impact upon or functioning, behaviours and cognitive ability. All the ‘symptoms’ of insomnia can suddenly become part of your day and add to any issues you are already dealing with, having a deeper impact upon mood, stress levels, cognitive function and overall resilience.
- Anger and violent behaviours - it has been reported that domestic violence and general violent behaviour cases increase during periods of extreme heat. Evidence linking heat and aggression may be confirmed by such expressions as being “hot headed” and “I feel so hot my blood boils”.
- Suicidal ideation - again, because of the effects of extreme heat on moods, sleep, behaviour, circumstances and cognitive function it is noted that suicide cases sadly increase during periods of prolonged extreme heat. For someone already struggling any increase in these additional aspects can be overwhelming.
- People with mental health issues - those with severe psychotic or mood disorders, substance abuse disorders, or cognitive impairments may find coping under extreme weather conditions even more challenging. Their fragility, circumstances or personal situations may be significantly exaggerated, adding to stressors, judgement and mental health concerns. For example, those managing Schizophrenia may have impairments in temperature regulation, rational, visual and hearing impairments, all of which can be affected by severe heat. Medication effects or side effects may also be impacted, again creating further complexed situations or issues to cope with. Some psychiatric medications, including some antidepressants and antipsychotics, can affect the way the body regulates temperature.so this may become an issue.
- The homeless or deprived - those experiencing already challenging environmental and financial issues may struggle further during times of extreme heat. Being able to access safe shade or cooler areas, keeping hydrated and access to any relevant medication may all prove more challenging for those in deprived areas or circumstances.
- Increased stress levels - not only does excessive heat impact upon our moods, behaviours, ability to sleep but it can also add to our stress, anxiety and worry levels. We may be concerned about ourselves and how any young children, elderly parents, relatives with mental health or health conditions or our animals and pets are coping. This additional worry can add to our stress and anxiety levels, which may already be raised due to the heat impact on ourselves.
So, what can we do to help ourselves?
Most of these suggestions may appear obvious, but bear in mind our cognitive functioning may be compromised during extreme heat, so the obvious is not always so!
- Keep cool - stay in the shade, indoors if cooler, use a fan, air conditioning if you can, take a cool shower or bath, use cool packs/mats
- Keep a cool head - remember the above points of how it can affect you and others!
- Keep hydrated - drink plenty of water, more than usual. Avoid alcohol, excessive caffeine and sugary drinks. Make sure others, including pets and animals, have access to fresh water
- Keep informed - take note of extreme weather warnings and plan your day accordingly if you can. Do you need to travel, can you make alternative arrangements? Wear appropriate clothing, pack sun cream, drinks etc. Check the forecast and local news for helpful tips. Get informed on the signs of heat stroke and heat exhaustion
- Keep relaxed - find your ways of relaxing; lying somewhere cool, meditating, use grounding and relaxing breathing techniques, listen to music or read a book
- Keep up those self help strategies - remember to utilise all the techniques/methods you use to manage any underlying mental health conditions; such as grounding, breathing, distraction, mindfulness, meditation and anchoring techniques. Do all you can to manage your stress and anxiety levels
- Keep rested - try to get some sleep if you can. If you can’t sleep, just rest. Maybe try resting downstairs or in the coolest part of the house
- Keep perspective - remember this extreme weather will end, it’s temporary
- Keep realistic - be real about what you can achieve in extreme heat, postpone things that may put too much strain on you, lower your achievement targets
- Keep a look out for others - check in on vulnerable neighbours, friends and family. Look after the animals, put water out for pets and local wildlife. Recognise the signs of heat stroke and heat exhaustion in yourself and others
- Keep supporting - support yourself and others through this time, take time out and be kind!
Of course, extreme heat levels will have physical affects and mental health implications, so be mindful of the physical signs too.
Whilst extreme heatwaves are not currently a regular occurrence, we all need to be mindful that such extremes may become part of everyday life if climate change continues. So, let’s do what we can to help prevent that too!
Anyway, I will leave it there as I’m currently losing cognitive function during this current heatwave!
"Some sunshine is good for the soul, but I always make sure I wear a big hat."