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Here’s how heat waves are affecting your mental health and well-being

Author: Vibor Cipan Published on: August 21, 2022, and filed under Climate and weather
Here's how heat waves affect your mental health - photo by Jeremy Perkins Unsplash

Extreme heat can affect mood and increase the chance of a more serious mental health problem. Here's what you need to know from scientific studies looking into this issue.

Across the USA and Europe, hundreds of millions of people have endured heat wave after heat wave this summer. Even new national records were shattered. While we all know that heat waves significantly affect our physical health, a scientific study shows that extreme heat and humidity are both physically and mentally stressful.

Dr. Nick Obradovich is a computational social scientist at the Max Planck Institute for Human Development and a co-author of a 2018 paper on climate change’s mental health concerns. In his discussions with NY Times, he said heat extremes are harmful across the board.

Rising temperatures are linked to mental health disorders like exhaustion, aggressiveness, and suicide. However, Dr. Obradovich noted that this link isn’t restricted to temperature surges – it’s also prevalent in areas where it’s constantly hot.

Scientists don’t know why or if heat causes brain alterations that cause these consequences. However, heat is linked to worse mental health, researchers believe.

Research findings

According to Dr. Obradovich, temperature extremes can affect your day-to-day mood and your risk of a mental health crisis. For example, a study published in JAMA Psychiatry (Association Between Ambient Heat and Risk of Emergency Department Visits for Mental Health Among US Adults, 2010 to 2019) examined the medical data of more than 2.2 million persons who visited emergency rooms 3.5 million times from 2010 to 2019.

There were 8% more mental health ER visits on the hottest summer days than on the coolest. Self-harm, substance use, anxiety, mood, and schizophrenia emergency visits also rose with temperature. This tendency is “fairly similar for men and women, individuals of all ages, and people living in all parts of the U.S.,” said Dr. Amruta Nori-Sarma to NY Times.

Higher temperatures may promote bipolar relapses, while more sunlight may cause manic episodes, also. Higher temperatures have also been linked to mental health fatalities.

On days when temperatures are above 70 °F / 21 °C, almost 2 million Americans reported less joy, happiness, tension, anger, and exhaustion than those days with temperatures between 50 °F / 10 °C and 60 °F /  16 °C degrees. The scientists noted that these connections were strongest above 90 °F / 32 °C.

Longer-term warming and rates of mental health issues
Longer-term warming and rates of mental health issues as described in https://www.pnas.org/doi/10.1073/pnas.1801528115

How’s our body reacting?

C. Munro Cullum, a clinical neuropsychologist from Dallas working at UT Southwestern Medical Center, says, “When we’re uncomfortable, we’re not at our best.” Heat discomfort and the energy needed to cool down can reduce resilience. In addition, he noted that it makes agitation, annoyance, and pain worse.

Dr. Martin Paulus, who serves as a president of the Laureate Institute for Brain Research in Tulsa, Oklahoma, partnered with Dr. Obradovich on his 2018 study. He said that maintaining body temperature during a heat wave causes stress and inflammation. Mental health disorders may be exacerbated by heat stress, he noted. He emphasizes that it’s difficult to investigate what happens in the brain during intense heat. You can study how the brain and body handle a few minutes or hours of high temperatures in a laboratory, but you can’t perform that for days or months. Yet, those longer exposures are vital for comprehending how changing climate may affect us long-term.

Dr. Nori-Sarma says the constant correlation between heat and mental health implies that heat affects the brain. Heat may induce a brain signaling imbalance or inflammation and can interrupt sleep, worsening mental health issues. Dr. Obradovich commented on a well-known fact – warm evenings hinder sleep. According to psychology and psychiatry research, insufficient sleep and sleep problems, in general, are connected to worse mental health over time, and Dr. Obradovich believes that a mixture of these hypotheses might explain heat’s influence on mental health.

Other factors and eco-anxiety

Dr. Paulus also mentioned climate anxiety. Climate warming increases the frequency and severity of wildfires and heat waves. In addition, as global warming develops, eco-anxiety may intensify stress, anxiety, depression, or disaster-related PTSD symptoms. The 2018 study mentioned earlier showed that those with lower incomes and women faced harsher mental health consequences from heat. For example, low-income women were twice as affected by heat as high-income males.

In a heat wave, protecting yourself is crucial. Being conscious of heat exposure, staying hydrated, and avoiding heat are important choices. Also, be mindful of your family members who might need assistance, neighbors, and pets!


Author avatar


Vibor Cipan

With over 15 years of professional work in technology, Vibor Cipan is a recognized leader in this field. His contributions at Microsoft, where he earned the prestigious MVP title, set the stage for his roles as CEO and Co-Founder of UX Passion, and later on, Point Jupiter, a data-informed agency. There, he led teams that shaped services for over 400 million users globally. His work spans UX design and software development, driving significant contributions in both fields.

Currently immersed in the generative AI sector, Cipan is taking part in projects revolutionizing software development and user engagement. His expertise extends into data viz, analytics and Open Source Intelligence (OSINT), where he actively develops proofs of concept and explores AI's role in shaping societal dynamics and national security.

An accomplished author and speaker, Vibor continues to share his insights at international venues, advocating for innovation and a richer understanding of technology's impact on society.

You can follow him on LinkedIn or Twitter/X as @viborc.

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