Explained: How heatwave affects your mental health

Mental health experts have suggested that extreme physical exhaustion and restlessness due to high temperatures during a heatwave can lead to depression and anxiety

With a severe heatwave scorching large swathes of the country, studies have found it is not unusual to feel anxious, stressed and irritable due to the increased temperatures.

Northwest India has been recording higher than normal temperatures since March last week, with weather experts attributing it to the absence of periodic light rainfall and thundershowers, which typify this time of the year, due to the lack of active western disturbances.

Explained: What is a heatwave and what does it do to your body?

Prolonged exposure to a hot environment can lead to a drop in blood pressure, dehydration, muscle cramps and fainting. Increased temperatures can also fatally harm a person’s mental health, studies have found.

What is a heatwave?

The word, heatwave, has become a part of common parlance over the years, generally to refer to very hot days. However, there is a technical definition to this meteorological phenomenon.

There are a number of criteria set by the India Meteorological Department (IMD) to declare a heatwave for a region.

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 as a heatwave.

A heatwave is also declared when the maximum temperature rises by between 4.5 degrees Celsius and 6.4 degrees Celsius above normal.

A severe heatwave is declared when the maximum temperature departs from normal is more than 6.4 degrees Celsius.

A third condition for a heatwave arises when an area records a maximum temperature of more than 45 degrees Celsius and up to 47 degrees Celsius on any given day.

How does heatwave affect your mental health?

According to a report by Mint Lounge, the sixth assessment report of the Intergovernmental Panel on the Climate Change 2022: Impacts, Adaptation and Vulnerability suggested that extreme heat has negative impacts on mental health, wellbeing, life satisfaction, happiness, cognitive performance, and aggression.

It says, “Children and adolescents, particularly girls, as well as people with existing mental, physical, and medical challenges and elderly people, are particularly at risk.”

A 2021 report on climate change by The Lancet also indicated the impact of extreme heat on mental health across the world.

“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,” it said.

Mental health experts have suggested that extreme physical exhaustion and restlessness due to high temperatures can lead to depression and anxiety.

An increase in suicide rate has also been noticed due to extreme heat.

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

According to a report by Down To Earth, the Central Institute of Psychiatry (CIP) in Ranchi also found a noticeable increase in mental health cases under extreme heat.

The CIP recorded a 10-20 per cent increase in footfall, a trend that usually begins in April and lasts till June-end. Cases of bipolar disorder in the manic stage were the most common cause of hospitalisation in March this year, the report said.

Some of the common symptoms are excitement, irritability and aggression.

Dr Basudeb Das, director at CIP Ranchi, noted that “one standard deviation of temperature increase leads to a four per cent increase in interpersonal violence and 14 per cent increase in group violence. High risk behaviours also increase during heatwaves.”

He added that a pre-existing psychiatric illness can triple the risk of death during a heatwave.

How to keep calm when the sun can’t

Most afflictions caused by heatwave can be prevented by drinking sufficient amounts of water regularly on hot days.

Staying indoors can also help alleviate the impact of heatwave, both mentally and physically.

Playing a sport, going out for walks, or participating in outdoor activities during the evening or morning hours also help improve mental health.

Steven Forter

Steven Forter

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