Irritable, depressed or anxious this summer? Extreme heat impacts mental health, too.
When you think back over this summer, do you recall feeling more irritable, upset or anxious? Did you notice the same in other people?
Anecdotally, it seems as if these extremely hot days impact not only our physical well-being, but also our mental health. And mental health professionals are guiding us to pay closer attention to this phenomenon.
Wendy Amozurrutia-Salazar is a licensed professional counselor and a practice manager at Integral Care, Travis County's local mental health authority. She says the connection between our bodies and minds drives what we experience in extreme weather.
"I think we can all likely agree that when we are not feeling well physically, it's going to impact our mood and it's going to affect us emotionally," she says.
She says we need to better understand our current mental and physical health to be better able to take care of ourselves and reach out to others for help when extreme situations like a heat wave arise.
"It requires intentionality when it comes to self-care and addressing the physical needs that our bodies require in order to build that resiliency," Amozurrutia-Salazar says.
KUT spoke with Amozurrutia-Salazar earlier this summer about how extreme heat impacts our mental health and how we can work to regulate that.
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
On how extreme heat impacts people physically and mentally
There is a body-mind connection when we're talking about how we are responding and reacting to extreme temperatures, to physical changes that are impacted by extreme temperatures. And when I think about how this looks in general, those physical tolls of extreme heat can create issues with just the physical needs that our body has. We're thinking about — How are we staying hydrated? Is it changing our appetite? What is it doing to our overall impact and physical functioning?
When we are experiencing changes or bodily reactions to these extreme temperatures, this can lead to an impact on changes in mood. And when we're thinking about that, we're thinking about what is our baseline for emotional resiliency, and how do these things work together.
On some of the emotional and psychological impacts of extreme heat
I think we can all likely agree that when we are not feeling well physically, it's going to impact our mood and it's going to affect us emotionally. And when we are talking about changes in mood, especially as it relates to just the physical adaptations to such extreme weather, it can really lower our distress tolerance. It can contribute to increased agitation. We can start to experience disturbances in sleep which will also impact our body's ability to recharge itself adequately; to navigate our emotional resiliency; to attend to the day-to-day activities of our daily lives.
There was a recent study researching the emotional impact on extreme heat. This study found that there was an increase in emergency room visits specific to psychiatric and mental health-related concerns. In this study it showed that there was a higher level of visits for substance use-related concerns, anxiety and mood disorders. And in this study, it was highlighted that the emotional impact extreme heat can cause can create a significant change in emotional tolerance and in emotional regulation.
Specifically to changes in mood, we're talking about impact on irritability and impact on depressed mood and anxiety. Just those physical interruptions with sleep, our ability to stay hydrated and our ability to make sure that our body is getting what it needs — and all of the all of those work together in unison to create that physical and mental resiliency that we need.
On what people can do to counter emotional impacts of extreme heat
None of us is immune to the impact that extreme heat can have on a person. We must take into account the uniqueness of our own physical and mental existence. It's important that if we are living with preexisting conditions or conditions that require medical oversight with a provider and treatment [or] medications that we're taking, being aware of what that might look like for us in terms of our own health care.
Being an active part of our physical and emotional health care is incredibly important. If we are taking medications or are under the care of a provider overseeing medications, having a conversation with our provider can be helpful in understanding and learning about any heat sensitivities we may be having with any medication that we're taking for preexisting conditions.
If we are actively working through an emotional health care need, getting connected with our mental health provider is going to be an integral part of the self-care process so that we can increase awareness of how this extreme heat that we're experiencing can impact our current emotional state; what sensitivities we may be more vulnerable to; and how we can develop a plan on ensuring that we are staying abreast of these needs and making sure that we're taking care of ourselves.
Building a system of support is incredibly important and being informed and doing so in that collaborative way with our providers and the mental health professionals can be a very important step to take in generating a plan for ourselves.
On the importance of community and connection to emotional health
It's incredibly important to recognize that we are all in this together. It could make us worried about whether or not we should even go out and the social implications that that might have with wanting to preserve and conserve ourselves in the midst of this extreme temperature.
I do feel strongly that it's important to stay informed. Stay connected with our systems of support, because that's going to keep us informed. Whether those systems of support are with our medical providers, our mental health providers, our persons in our inner circle, but that we engage in active conversations about what we are doing for ourselves. How might we extend support to others is going to be very important so that we don't find ourselves isolating and withdrawing, but rather reaching out is if something is going on; if we're noticing changes; if we are experiencing changes in mood.
But seeking out that support, seeking out that social connectedness remains an incredibly important step that will be vital in just this ongoing effort at adapting to these changes that we're experiencing with weather.
On eventually adjusting emotionally to extreme heat
In other parts of our world, people live in different conditions, some more extreme, whether it's heat or cold. In our community in particular, we are contending with extreme temperatures that our bodies have not become accustomed to. And adapting to these changes takes time. And it requires intentionality, which is why these conversations are so important, because there are steps that we can take.
There are things that we can do. Learning about not only what we can do for ourselves, but what our community is doing to help support those of us living in this community, to be able to create that intentional space when it comes to self-care and addressing the physical needs our bodies require in this process of adapting to these changes.
On the difference between general irritability and something deeper
We are all equipped with emotion. Emotion serves a purpose. There's no bad emotion to have. There are pleasant emotions and unpleasant emotions. And we all have a baseline when it comes to mood. Making space for identifying what our baseline is; what does our mood typically look like?
And really creating that connection within ourselves is going to be important because it's going to allow us to assess how we are doing. It will allow us track changes in ourselves, both physically and emotionally. It's going to create an opportunity for conversation — whether it's with our persons of support in our inner circle.
Oftentimes we seek out support in that direction first, but it allows for conversations to be had with regards to what we're seeing. And that can lead to then identifying whether or not we need to seek out some guidance and support from our medical or mental health professionals.
But really taking the time to recognize that emotions are an active part of everyone's existence and creating some space for identifying what that baseline looks like for us is going to be important.
On groups that may be more psychologically vulnerable to extreme heat
I think it's incredibly important to recognize that none of us are immune to the impact that this extreme heat can have on a person. If we are living with preexisting conditions, either physically or mentally, these are things to take note of. If we're under the care of a medical provider overseeing medications, being informed of what my medications are for; how they impact me; what are some concerns specific to heat sensitivities that I need to be informed of that I may not have known to ask?
I think we must also take into account any individuals living in poverty; experiencing difficulties with ensuring proper shelter; our elderly community; and any individuals who may be living with co-occurring chronic health conditions; already preexisting mental health conditions — are all individuals that may find it a little more challenging to cope or adapt.