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Are heatwaves the cause of your bad mood?

May 17, 2022
Reviewed by: Rajnandini Rathod

Avinash and his 5-year-old daughter Netra had a ritual. When he would come back from work, Netra would sit on his lap and talk about all the things she did in her playschool and he would listen with animated excitement. However, today things didn’t go as per the norm. When Avinash came back home, he was hot and sweaty and couldn’t bear the thought of having someone close to him, even his own daughter. When Netra tried to get close to him, he snapped which caused her to bawl loudly. The wife got angry and the parents got furious. This was just the beginning of the heatwave and it seems every Indian household had some version of a heat wave causing family drama.

In India heat waves in spring and summer are now a regular occurrence. According to the India Meteorological Department, it has been the third-hottest April the country has seen over the past 122 years, from 1901 to 2022, and March was the hottest ever recorded. Before we discuss the physical and mental health effects of extreme heat, let’s first understand the term heat wave?

What is a heatwave?

In common terms, heat waves usually stand for very hot days. However, the technical definition of this meteorological phenomenon is based on not just how hot it is, but where and by how many degrees. The India Meteorological Department (IMD has set a number of criteria upon which it is decided whether there is a heat wave in the region or not.

India’s topography varies across the region. Accordingly, when the maximum temperature reaches at least 40 degrees Celsius in the plains, at least 37 degrees Celsius along the coast, and at least 30 degrees Celsius in hilly regions, it is declared a heat wave. Also, when the maximum temperature rises by between 4.5 degrees Celsius and 6.4 degrees Celsius above normal, it is said to be a heatwave. A severe heatwave is declared when the maximum temperature exceeds normal and is more than 6.4 degrees Celsius. A third condition for a heatwave is met when an area records a maximum temperature of more than 45 degrees Celsius and up to 47 degrees Celsius on any given day.

How do heat waves affect your mental health?

With heat waves being so common, most of us are aware of the physical effects which include exhaustion, heatstroke, lethargy, and dehydration. Continued exposure to a hot environment can cause the blood pressure to drop, dehydration, muscle cramps and even fainting. However, not many of us know that extreme heat can have an effect on our mental health and more and more studies are corroborating this as a fact.

According to the sixth assessment report of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change 2022: Impacts, Adaptation and Vulnerability, extreme heat can have negative effects on cognitive performance, life satisfaction, happiness levels and overall mental and physical wellbeing.

The Lancet, in its 2021 report, on climate change, addressed the impact of extreme heat on mental health across the world. The report quoted, “Increases in heat extremes that are related to climate change pose diverse risks to mental health globally, ranging from altered affective states to increased mental health-related hospital admissions and suicidality”.

As per a 2021 review of epidemiological studies on heat exposure and mental health outcomes, there is a 2.2 per cent rise in mental health-related mortality with an increase in temperature of just one degree Celsius.

Another article published in the Indian Journal of occupational and environmental medicine states that various mood disorders and anxiety is caused by heat stress brought on by heat waves. Being exposed to extreme heat leads to physical and psychological fatigue.

Heat waves also lead to questions about climate change and this can lead to a range of mental health outcomes, from minimal stress and distress to clinical disorders like anxiety and insomnia and even depression and suicidal thoughts.

During hot weather, the increase in discomfort leads to rising feelings of hostility and aggressive behaviour. In slums and chawls of major cities, where houses are cramped with poor ventilation, there may be a rise in violence and crimes due to increased stressors because of heat. Low-income groups may also feel even more marginalized when they are aware that higher-income people are comfortable in their air-conditioned homes and cars. These socio-economic stressors can cause anger, sadness and even depression.   

Heat waves also force people to stay indoors and this can cause people to feel socially withdrawn and alone, especially among people who stay alone. Women and children are more prone to bad moods during extreme heat. Studying in hot classrooms and no access to a playground can make children irritable and moody. Women have to cook meals in a hot kitchen which can cause them additional stress. Working parents coming back home from an uneasy and hot commute are too depleted in energy to spend quality time with children leading to stress at home.

How to stay cool when the weather is too hot?

To ensure that your mental health is not impacted due to the heat wave you need to take care of your physical wellbeing. Here are a few things you should do during a heat wave.

Stay hydrated: Drink lots and lots of fluid. If you don’t like the idea of drinking water all the time, then you can choose from coconut water, sugar cane juice, electrolyte water, fruit juice, milkshake, etc. Just be careful to not have too many sugar-laden drinks as it can lead to weight gain and diabetes.

Avoid the sun between 11 am to 2 pm: The sun is the hottest between 11 am and 2 pm and sunstrokes are most likely to occur during that period. In some parts of the country, it gets extremely hot post 9 am as well, so depending on where you are, it is advisable to avoid the sun during that time. By reducing your exposure to the sun, you will reduce your chance of overheating.

Dress accordingly: Wear loose, breathable clothing made of cotton and linen. Wear comfortable shoes that don’t leave your feet sweaty. Most people dismiss sunglasses as just a fashionable accessory, but good quality sunglasses will save your eyes from harmful UV rays. Also wear a hat or carry an umbrella to shade yourself from the sun rays.   

Cooldown your “hot zones”: If you do not have access to an air conditioner then this tip will help you a lot. Apply an ice pack to the following pressure points – Ankles, behind the knees, wrists, elbow bends, neck and temple. This will help you cool down immediately.

Stay active: Hot weather can make you lethargic which can make you feel down. So, wake up early in the morning and go for a stroll when it’s still cool, you can even choose to go for walks late at night. Just make sure that you don’t overexert yourself.

Stay positive: It’s easy to get irritable during a heatwave, but try to keep yourself distracted. Watch a funny movie or a comedy show, read good books or listen to your favourite music. Your hobbies can help you stay in a more positive frame of mind.

In closing, heat waves can cause you to be in a bad mood, however, you can take control of it and try to beat the heat with a positive attitude. With the monsoons around the corner, it’s just a couple more days, so enjoy your popsicles and ice creams till then!


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