July 12, 2024

As temperatures rise and stay high in many parts of the United States this summer, many people are feeling the effects—not just in their bodies, but in their moods and emotional states as well. From lowered energy and irritability to disrupted sleep and increased isolation at home, excessive heat can affect people’s mental well-being in important ways.

What does the science have to say about it? A literature review published in 2023 in Health Science Reports attempts to answer that question.

With concerns about climate change ever-growing, it’s important that more proactive strategies are put into place that recognize the role of heat on mental health. With depression and anxiety already at problematic levels, it’s imperative that mental health effects are part of the climate change conversation.

The Health Science Reports paper, whose lead author Moustaq Karim Khan Rony is affiliated with the Bangladesh Department of Public Health, involved a literature review that was multi-disciplinary in nature. Studies from environmental science, psychology, public health, and climate studies were all included. The results underscored that with each uncomfortable rise in temperature, several subtle but meaningful effects are possible, starting with increased anxiety. When the body’s stress response is activated by hot temperatures, cortisol and epinephrine are released in increased amounts. This can make existing anxiety worse, and create angst in those who were previously calm. Emotional sensitivity also increases, leading people to feel more easily upset, more prone to conflict and frustration, and more impatient.

As people get further dehydrated in the heat, cognitive changes are possible—like increased brain fog or confusion. Dehydration can even begin to mimic the symptoms of panic, with increased heart rate, shallow breathing, and lightheadedness. Prolonged high temperatures can disrupt daily mood cycles in multiple ways by disrupting sleep and increasing hormonal fluctuations.

In time, people tend to show a decreased ability to cope with stress, which can affect their interpersonal relationships and work performance, and make them less adaptable. Moreover, the physical discomfort that comes with excessive heat can cause a lack of motivation, lessened enthusiasm, and decreased energy. This can be associated with an increased sense of helplessness and even hopelessness.

On the more severe side, extreme heat and heat exhaustion may exacerbate existing mental health conditions. When the body’s temperature rises to a certain level that is incompatible with normal brain function, psychotic symptoms can even be seen. People with bipolar disorder may see their manic symptoms exacerbated during heat waves.

Of course, as temperatures rise, not everyone is affected equally—not just because of their individual psychological make-ups, but also because of their socioeconomic status. People who live in crowded conditions without adequate indoor temperature control, people whose jobs don’t allow them the flexibility of indoor time, and people who don’t have the resources to adequately cool their living space—or who have no living space—are even more prone to the physical dangers and psychological effects of excessive heat. Elderly people can be particularly susceptible to the negative effects of heat, and may also be more prone to be living in isolation without someone immediately making sure that they are OK.

As climate scientists work on planning for the effects of the changes to come, it’s imperative that we don’t look at this problem merely from an environmental or sociological lens. Individual psychological changes—like the ones you may very well be feeling if you’ve seen temperatures that are excessively hot or humid this summer—will likely get worse as well without adequate mitigation.

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