4 effects of heat on mental health (and how to protect yourself)
California is heating up. Southern California is about 3 degrees warmer than just a century ago, thanks to climate change.
All Californians have seen how high temperatures and increasing heat waves can directly impact the environment. And many have felt the effects on their physical health — especially the heart and lungs. But heat can also affect your mental health.
So before you beat yourself up for feeling sad or angry on a hot, sunny day, learn how high temperatures might be affecting your brain.
Groups at highest risk for heat-related mental health issues
High heat and changing weather can affect everyone’s mood to an extent. But some people have a higher risk of mental health symptoms associated with heat, including those who live with:
- Chronic illness, since limited mobility and worsened physical symptoms during heat waves can impact mood.
- Dementia, which is a risk factor for hospitalization and death during heat waves.
- Financial challenges that don’t allow for air conditioning or access to quality medical care.
- Preexisting mental health conditions, especially people taking antidepressants and antipsychotics, which may affect how your body regulates temperature.
- Pregnancy, because poor mental health during pregnancy may lead to pregnancy complications or low birth weight.
- Substance abuse problems, which make it harder to adapt to climate change.
How heat affects mental health
Extreme heat raises our awareness of climate change. More than 50% of Americans say climate change makes them anxious.
But when the temperatures rise, the impact goes beyond worrying for some people. Heat can change mental health by disrupting hormones, sleep and social norms. As a result, the higher temperatures associated with climate change may increase:
Symptoms of depression
The relationship between heat and depression is complicated — but there is a relationship. Researchers reviewed over 600 million social media updates, focusing on depressive language. They concluded that mental health and well-being generally worsen during warmer weather.
Many heat-related factors may contribute to more severe depression, including:
- Increased substance abuse: Climate change that hinders your ability to work or be social may lead to increased drinking or drug use.
- Medication inconsistency: Heat can cause some mental health medications not to work as well or have more side effects, especially if you are dehydrated.
- Poor sleep: Research shows that air temperature can directly affect your quality and quantity of sleep. When you aren’t sleeping well, your hormones can get thrown off balance and cortisol (stress hormone) increases.
- Serotonin levels: Experts believe that higher temps may affect this neurotransmitter that regulates your mood, especially among people already living with depression and those who drink alcohol regularly.
Suicide rates and hospitalization
A review of research found that even less than a 2-degree increase in the average monthly temperature is associated with 1.5% higher rates of suicide and suicidal behavior. The increased rate occurred in both hotter and cooler regions.
The review also looked at hospital visits and admissions related to mental illness. During heat waves lasting more than three days, hospitals saw an almost 10% increase in those cases.
Researchers explain that many factors, such as age, preexisting mental health issues and weather, play a role in how heat affects suicide and hospitalization. But the findings support the association between increases in heat and worsening mental health.
Irritability, aggression and incidence of domestic violence
Experts believe that higher temperatures cause people to feel more angry, frustrated and irritable. On the flip side, cooler temps make people feel more content.
According to research from 2021, rising temperatures can increase the number of violent crimes, including homicides, sexual offenses and assaults. In seven U.S. cities, each time the temperature rose 5 degrees Celsius (9 degrees Fahrenheit), there were up to 5% more sex offenses the following week.
Problems with cognitive function
Hot weather can make it hard to sleep, especially if you don’t have air conditioning. Not getting enough sleep changes the areas of your brain associated with decision-making and problem-solving.
Researchers studied college students living in dorms with and without air conditioning during a heat wave. Those without air conditioning experienced reduced cognitive function each morning compared to those sleeping with air conditioning.
Signs that heat is affecting your mental health
According to the Anxiety and Depression Association of America, there are several signs that hot weather is affecting your mental health, including:
- Behavioral changes, especially impulsivity
- Cognitive issues, including trouble with concentration or memory
- Difficulty sleeping or getting enough sleep
- Feeling stressed or overwhelmed
- Mood changes, including feeling more depressed, irritable or anxious
- Physical symptoms such as headaches, dizziness or nausea
How to manage heat and mental health
When the temperature starts to rise, there are ways to protect your mental health:
- Drink water: Dehydration can worsen stress, anxiety and irritability. It can also change the effects of certain medications.
- Make healthy choices: Physical health supports mental health, so eat balanced meals, exercise and get enough sleep.
- Manage stress: Use meditation, yoga and other techniques to reduce stress levels.
- Socialize: Being around other people can boost mental health.
- Stay cool: Spend time inside or in the shade during the hottest parts of the day. Wear cool clothing, use fans or air conditioning and take cold showers whenever possible.
If you are already being treated for mental health, continue to take your medication as directed. Contact your primary care physician or mental health provider if you are experiencing increased symptoms during times of extreme weather and temperatures.