Dr. Beth: Keeping a Cool Head in the Heat

Summer in Shanghai isn’t comfortable. It’s hot. It’s humid. And it seems inescapable. As the temperature escalates, so do people’s tempers. The hotter the weather, the worse we behave. Studies have shown a greater likelihood of violence and aggression. Drug and alcohol abuse increases. Depression levels rise and so do psychiatric hospitalizations and suicide attempts. Crime rates are also higher. A particularly significant study for Shanghai locals found that people are much more likely to honk at others on the road if it’s a hot day rather than a cool day.

Our functioning also takes a hit with heightened levels of humidity. Studies have shown that humidity levels are linked with lower concentration and lower levels of energy. Sleep is worse in high humidity, and poor sleep is linked to feeling more stressed, sad, irritable, angry and hostile.

Why does this happen? 

Biologically, an increase in body temperature causes an increase in physical arousal. In warmer temperatures, a person’s heart rate heightens and their blood pressure rises. This is the body trying to cool itself off, but the physiological effects mimic those activated during times of threat or danger. For this reason, physical arousal is known to be linked to aggressive behavior. Our body perceives that it needs to react instinctively to preserve it’s wellbeing.

These impulsive reactions can include angry outbursts, physical violence, and other defensive behaviors. This phenomenon is worsened by the fact that we do not feel as if we are upset or aggressive. In fact, the opposite occurs. As temperature increases, our perception of our arousal decreases. We actually feel drained or sluggish. This can have disastrous consequences on our regulation of our own behavior, as we are not aware of the need to be cautious with our reactions. If people think that they are not at risk for overreacting, they end up behaving more recklessly.

Furthermore, the odds of dehydration increase substantially in hot weather. Dehydration can substantially alter a person’s mood- even at mild levels. Studies have shown that after losing just 1.5 percent of the body’s typical water volume, people become fatigued, concentration drops, and they begin to develop headaches. People become both more tense and more anxious. People’s behaviors then are affected by these changes in mood and physical comfort.

How do you keep your cool when the weather refuses to do so?

First of all, remember to maintain your hydration at all costs. Increase water intake and be aware of what you are drinking. Caffeine is actually a diuretic, so while it may seem that downing iced coffees or Cokes is helpful, it actually dehydrates you even more. Keep a water bottle in your bag and drink from it regularly throughout the day. Also talk with your doctor if you are taking medications, as many have dehydrating effects.

Secondly, stay away from large crowds (if you can manage to do so in Shanghai.) Exposure to large groups of people has also been shown to increase irritability and anxiety levels. If you are able, it isn’t a bad idea to try to stay home and perhaps nap in the middle of the day when it is the weather is it’s hottest.

Lastly, simply be aware. As mentioned above, we tend to underestimate our levels of arousal in high levels of heat. If we are more aware of this fact, we can adjust our expectations and our own behavior accordingly. Avoid making any big life changes during a heat wave, especially anything that might be emotional for you. Minimize exposure to stressful situations. If you notice that you are having a difficult time controlling your reactions, working with a psychologist or other professional on anger management and mood regulation techniques can be helpful as well. You may not be able to change the heat, or your body’s reaction, but you can change the odds of your overreacting or regretting your decisions!

Dr. Beth Rutkowski is the Lead Psychologist at Olivia’s Place in Shanghai. If you have questions or concerns about your mental health or that of loved ones, you are welcome to contact her directly at ber@lih-oliviasplace.com or the Olivia’s Place team at (8621) 5404-0058.

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