It's summertime in Tulsa, OK and this week our temperatures are projected to hit the triple digits. We asked Dr. Martin Paulus to discuss some of the latest research on the effects of heat on mental health and recommendations for what you can do to stay healthy as temperatures rise.
Dr. Martin Paulus is the Scientific Director and President of Laureate Institute for Brain Research (LIBR) and a Professor at Oxley College of Health Sciences at The University of Tulsa.
Q: Can excessive heat really affect mental health?
A: Evidence does support that theory. Signs that heat is affecting a person can include changes in mood, feeling more irritable, anxious, or depressed than usual. Heat can also make it harder to concentrate or think clearly; it can also disrupt sleep, which can worsen mental health conditions like anxiety and depression.
If someone already has a mental health condition, they might find that their symptoms get worse when it's hot. We recently reviewed three peer-reviewed studies; the studies found that when it gets really hot outside, people tend to have more mental health problems. You can read the full studies here, here and here.
Q: What are the signs of how heat may be affecting your mental health?
A: There are 3 main ways the heat may show effects on your mental health:
Physical symptoms: Heat can also cause physical symptoms that affect your mental health. For example, you might feel more tired than usual, have headaches, or feel dizzy or nauseous. These physical symptoms can make you feel anxious or down.
Changes in behavior: You might find yourself acting differently when it's hot. For example, you might be more impulsive, or you might have a hard time controlling your anger.
Worsening of existing mental health conditions: If you already have a mental health condition like depression, anxiety, bipolar disorder, or schizophrenia, you might notice that your symptoms get worse when it's hot.
Note: Some people take medication to help with their mental health problems. But when it's hot outside, these medications might not work as well, or they might have more side effects. Doctors need to keep this in mind when they're helping patients during hot weather.
Q: How intense can these behaviors become?
A: Unfortunately, thinking about suicide is something to be aware of. We do still need more research, but these studies found that when the temperature goes up, sadly, so do suicide rates. This seems to be especially true for men and older people. This means that when we're trying to prevent suicide, we should think about how hot weather might be making things worse. Additionally, people who already have mental health problems might feel even worse, and they might need to go to the hospital more often. This means that hospitals and clinics need to be ready for more patients when there's a heatwave.
Q: Climate change is making hot days and heatwaves more common. Is there a concern that there’s a relationship between climate change and mental health problems?
A: Yes. One of the studies even predicted that if we don't do anything about climate change, there could be thousands more suicides in the US and Mexico by the year 2050.
Q: What else do we need to consider?
A: Even though these studies tell us a lot, there's still a lot we don't know. We need more research to understand how hot weather affects different types of mental health problems, what the "danger zone" temperature might be for mental health, and how being inside vs. outside might make a difference.
Overall, these studies show that hot weather and climate change can make mental health problems worse. This is a big deal, and it's something that doctors, hospitals, and people who make health policies need to pay attention to. We also need more research to help us understand and deal with this problem better.
Q: What can people do to help manage their symptoms and stay more comfortable in extreme heat situations?
A: Stay hydrated: Dehydration can worsen feelings of anxiety and irritability. Make sure to drink plenty of water throughout the day, especially if you're sweating a lot.
Stay cool: Try to spend time in air-conditioned places if possible. If you don't have air conditioning at home, consider visiting a public place that does, like a library or shopping mall. You can also use fans, take cool showers, or use cold packs to help cool down.
Avoid the hottest part of the day: If possible, try to stay indoors during the hottest part of the day, usually between 10 a.m. and 4 p.m, but often later in the Tulsa area. If you need to be outside, try to stay in the shade. Wear appropriate clothing: Wear lightweight, loose-fitting clothing to help stay cool. Light-colored clothing can also help reflect the sun's rays.
Take care of your physical health: Make sure to eat balanced meals and get plenty of sleep. Both can help manage mental health symptoms.
Practice stress management techniques: Techniques such as deep breathing, meditation, and yoga can help manage feelings of stress and anxiety.
Reach out to others: If you're feeling down or anxious, don't hesitate to reach out to friends, family, or a mental health professional. They can provide support and help you find ways to manage your symptoms.
Follow your treatment plan: If you have a mental health condition and are under the care of a healthcare provider, continue to follow your treatment plan. If your symptoms are getting worse, contact your healthcare provider. They may be able to adjust your treatment plan to help manage your symptoms during periods of extreme heat.
Want to know more? Here's a podcast segment on climate change and mental health with Dr. Nick Obradovich on NPR's 1a podcast and a Mashable article focused on similar research.