Is The Heat Bad For Our Mental Wellness
Is The Heat Bad For Our Mental Wellness
Dear Tacit,

Do the warmer temperatures have an impact on my mental wellness?

Signed: Is the Heat Bad For Our Mental Wellness?

Dear Is The Heat Bad For Our Mental Wellness,

What a great question!  And very timely given a couple of research articles I have been reading!  The human body is most efficient at a temperature of about 71-72 degrees Fahrenheit (which is about 22 degrees Celsius). It works smoothly and performs best, physically, emotionally and mentally, at this set point.  So, as a matter of fact, the warmer temps do have a very direct impact on a person’s mental wellbeing.  But there are pros and cons to it all…

The rain we have been getting in our local area (which we have all been saying was much needed after such a dry winter) and the seemingly above average windy days have created a rather slow start to our warm, summer months this year.  This has complicated many people’s plans to get outdoors.  For those of us in the northern climates of the country (where winter can sometimes last for 8 months or more), the remedy to the cold-weather isolation and cabin fever period each year is our summer time.  The warmer temperatures are a necessary equilibrium – they allow us to play in the gardens, to enjoy outdoor water activities, camp, soak in healthy amounts of Vitamin D, and be re-energized by the world outside of the walls of our homes in so many ways.  These limited summer months play a huge role in rebalancing our sanity.

But interestingly enough, research gives us a different caution about the effects of the warmer temperatures on the average person’s mental wellbeing. And there are a number of reasons for this:

 With increased temperatures, a person’s level of hydration changes and this can lead to some cognitive impairments, like brain fog and memory issues.  Studies show that we need to be only 1% dehydrated (which is often unnoticeable in every day life – to give some perspective, we do not begin to feel thirsty until we have lost at least 2% of our body weight in water) to experience a 5% decrease in our cognitive functioning.  Prolonged dehydration (even at these very low levels) can cause brain cells and brain mass to permanently shrink.  And this can lead to a fair amount of cognitive functioning issues later especially as the years go on (I am reaching for my glass of water as I type this – acutely aware that I do not always drink enough water on a daily basis, myself!  LOL)

As the outside temperatures rise, our sleep cycles get negatively affected.  Our body temperatures have to be able to drop just slightly below normal in order to allow us to get into the “deep sleep” part of our slumber cycles.  When we are too hot, we get stuck in the “light sleep” part instead, sometimes for hours upon hours.  Our bodies are not able to repair, or grow, or flush important toxins out of our systems unless we get enough “deep sleep” every night.  We simply do not feel properly rested and rejuvenated when we wake up from a night of too much light sleep.

As things get warmer, emotional sensitivity and anxiety levels also often begin to increase.  The brain releases more cortisol and epinephrine because the heat tends to activate the body’s stress response.  The body begins to feel more physiologically panicky because the warmer we feel, the more our heart rates go up, the shallower our breathing gets and the more risk of light-headedness we experience.  The brain reads these changes as danger.  People get more confused, more easily frustrated, more impatient and more likely to engage in conflict.

As the outside temps increase, so do aggressive behaviours and incidents of violence.  Increased substance use has also been correlated to increases in the warmth of our external environment.   The production of serotonin and dopamine (two of our main happy hormones) decreases when the days get too warm.  Pre-existing mental health conditions can also worsen – we see an increase in psychotic episodes and manic mood swings, for example.  And because some medications that are taken for various mental health conditions make it harder for the body to regulate its internal temperatures, this lack of internal cooling ability only worsens as the outside temperatures also climb.  Suicide rates have been shown to increase by 1% for every 1 degree (Celsius) that the outside temperature is too high (during heat waves).

With all of these changes (subtle as though they might be in some of us), a person’s ability to manage their stress diminishes.  Their personal relationships begin to suffer. Their work performance lessens.  Their motivation and energy levels wane.  And often, people begin to feel more helpless and incapable – their esteem can be adversely affected.

So, yes – to answer your question of if the heat is bad for mental wellness – the warmer temperatures do impact our mental wellness – in a variety of different ways.  I encourage you to take steps to ensure that yours is only enhanced, and not negatively impacted, by the warmth that we will hopefully be able to enjoy over these next 8 weeks or so!

Take care!

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