Do Heatwaves Impact Your Mental Health?

Do Heatwaves Impact Your Mental Health?

by Dr Emma Gray - 9th August, 2022


It seems that heatwaves are becoming more and more common, and with them, the warnings about their potential danger to health. You might think this just refers to physiological issues such as heatstroke and dehydration, but for some people, especially those with pre-existing psychiatric conditions, the mental impact can also be profound.

How hot weather impacts mental health

The increasing prominence of heatwaves has led to scientists researching a possible heatwave and mental health link. Every time there is a heatwave, it seems that hospitals experience an uptick in patients seeking mental health services. One study conducted in 2007 found a 3.8% rise in suicides for every additional degree of temperature over 18C.

In addition to general increases in depression, anxiety and aggression and a reduction in cognitive function that can make it difficult to think clearly, heatwaves can have distinct impacts on specific conditions. For example, someone with bipolar disorder is more likely to have a manic phase triggered during a heatwave.

Why do heatwaves have this effect?

There are many possible reasons to associate a heatwave and mental health changes. An immediate, biological cause may be hormonal changes. Other factors may be indirect, such as when the weather makes it difficult to sleep or alters your diet. This can be particularly significant for those with depression. These things are also associated with stress, as are wider concerns about climate change and the environment and how that is affecting certain groups of people. These anxieties can have a profound impact on mental health.

Hot weather impacts mental health medications as well. Anti-psychotics, one of the main types of drug used to treat schizophrenia and some forms of bipolar disorder, can change how we perceive thirst. They make it more difficult to remain properly hydrated, which is obviously a major concern in the heat. Other medications may also reduce in effectiveness or have more exaggerated side effects in response to hot weather.

What you can do to protect your mental health during a heatwave

If you have mental health problems, or you just want to protect your brain, then the first actions to take in a heatwave are the same as for anyone else. Stay out of direct sunlight, keep hydrated, take all necessary steps to remain cool. Trying to ensure a good night’s sleep becomes more important, as does moderating your alcohol intake. Even more specific advice relates to storing your medication safely, out of the sun, and ensuring you still take it at the appropriate time and dosage.

Your attitude to heatwaves can influence your overall health. Attempting to seek out positives and trying to be kinder to yourself, even when you are struggling, can improve your overall mindset. If you struggle with this, or your reaction to the heat is particularly severe, then you may benefit from going to see a professional for counselling.

Every significant study of the heatwave and mental health link seems to suggest that hot weather can be dangerous for those who already struggle with psychiatric problems. From hormonal changes to sleep difficulties to less effective medication, there is a long list of possible causes. That means it is even more important to stay safe and most of all, cool, when the hot weather arrives.

If you are suffering with any of the issues discussed in this article and would like to seek professional help then you may find our Problems Pages helpful.

Dr Emma Gray

Dr Emma Gray

I am often the first person with whom my patients share significant and intimate thoughts and memories; I never take that privileged position for granted nor the opportunity to help someone to feel better about themselves and discover a more fulfilling life. One of my colleagues once described me as a natural psychologist; I guess she was alluding to the fact that I feel at ease being a therapist, I can empathise with people’s distress and discomfort but don’t feel overwhelmed by it, I can understand their problem and know how to help, it has always just felt like what I should be doing.

Read more about my approach to counselling here...

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