Losing your cool? How beating the heat can protect your mental health
Are you more easily frustrated when the midday heat is pushing 95 degrees? Or have you let out some unkind words during July rush-hour traffic? You’re not alone. The summer heat can take an obvious toll on our bodies through heat exhaustion, dehydration and heat stroke, but psychiatrist Frank Peters, MD, said the blistering temperatures can have an impact on our mood and behaviors as well.
The association between temperature and emotion seems to be baked into the English language. Someone who likes to pick fights is often labeled a “hot head,” while an athlete who is able to perform well in an important, emotionally charged moment is said to have “ice in their veins.” So, what causes our emotions to rise with the mercury?
Dr. Peters said there is some evidence that higher temperatures impact how our brains use the chemical serotonin, which plays an important role in both mood and the ability to control aggressive impulses.
Studies of the effects of temperature on human behavior have shown that higher temperatures can lead to increased violence and aggression – from Major League pitchers being more likely to purposely hit opposing players on hot days, to major wars and revolutions tending to begin during unusually hot years.
“Even if suiting up for the Braves isn’t on your schedule for the summer, heat-related irritability and lowered self-control could lead to embarrassing or even dangerous situations with coworkers, friends or family,” said Dr. Peters. “Luckily, in many ways, you can care for your brain on a hot day the same ways you would care for your body.”
While there aren’t any ways to control the summer heat, here are some tips to make sure the heat doesn’t control you:
- Check the forecast daily and dress appropriately for the heat. Loose, lightweight clothing is best for keeping cool.
- Drink plenty of water. High humidity means that sweat doesn’t cool you down as efficiently as it would in places with lower humidity.
- Take regular breaks from the sun. Try to schedule your day so most intense outdoor activities take place in the early morning or near sunset.
- Monitor your mood while out in the heat. If you feel angry or irritable, consider what is making you angry, and take a quick break for a cool down and a self-care activity (listen to music, engage in a hobby, take a cool bath).
- Spend some time in a nearby park or other green space. A recent study showed that time spent in and around green spaces, like public parks or forests, helps reduce aggression.
- Wear sunscreen any time you plan to be in the sun. This doesn’t help with aggression, it’s just really important!
Awareness and preparation can go a long way in helping you keep your cool in the summer and make it one of the more enjoyable times of the year.
If irritability or aggressive behaviors are interfering with your life, let your doctor know so you can discuss whether mental health treatment might be beneficial.
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