- High temperatures can have an impact on our mental health, increasing addictions and moodiness.
- Resilience to heat needs solutions across different systems including municipal governments and workplaces.
- We can find solutions by looking to societies that have historically learned to deal with excessive heat.
As temperatures soar, we are having to change our routines and work schedules and to think carefully about keeping ourselves safe from heat stroke and burns. All of that is increasing our stress levels with potentially long-term impacts on mental health. After all, living with heat is stressful. It makes us irritable or lethargic.
Previous research like that of Jingwen Liu at the University of Adelaide in Australia (a place that really does understand the consequences of heat exposure) has shown that high ambient temperatures disrupt our work and travel. It stresses our budgets with its demands on us for cooling. It makes sleep more difficult. For those with a mental disorder or addiction, every one-degree increase in the mean daily temperature for more than three days increases the chances of death or illness. In other words, as the temperature rises, there is a trend toward more and more mental health challenges.
While we are documenting the effects of living under a heat dome, we know far less about how to cope successfully with these record-setting temperatures. Most of the advice we receive has remained at the level of individual change: Don’t go out in the sun. Buy an air conditioner. Drink lots of fluids. What is less understood is that our individual resilience depends on the resources we have available at many systemic levels. We can certainly feel greater self-efficacy in a dire situation when we do small things like adapt our daily routines to a hotter climate, carry a water bottle, or avoid touching hot pavement. These small gestures can help ease our stress, but, alone, none will be a sustainable solution.
Past heat events have taught us something about the need for collective solutions to an environmental crisis. When Paris experienced an extraordinarily hot summer in 2003, they turned schools into cooling stations to ensure that the elderly had easy access to a space in their own neighborhood where they could escape boiling hot apartments. In other words, it was the creativity of ensuring the close proximity and familiarity of the cooling stations that made them a successful intervention; specifically, no automobile required. It is this kind of systemic thinking that we need more of. It’s not enough to offer a solution. It has to be a solution that feels safe, contributes to one's sense of control, and doesn't add additional stress or stigma to an already difficult situation.
If we look at the current heat dome, we’d do well to not just think about individual changes to routine but also to begin to consider sustainable changes to work hours, family time, and recreation. All of this means changes at the level of our workplaces, municipal bylaws that govern operating times for restaurants, and a hundred other transformations to our daily lives. De-stressing a population and avoiding hot tempers erupting like molten lava is going to need more than personal change.
While decarbonizing our economy remains the goal, in the meantime, there are solutions closer at hand than we think. Before reinventing the wheel, we could look for solutions that are already being used by those living in climates where heat has always been a factor.
Modern work hours, for example, make little sense under a heat dome. Afternoon siestas and a workday broken into two parts would offer a much-needed respite from the stress caused by prolonged exposure to daily heat. The pace of the day when we do work also needs to be reconsidered, with more frequent breaks for hydration and time out from the sun if our jobs keep us outdoors. Solutions, though, go further.
Even social relations need to be reconsidered. I recall one hot summer evening while visiting Bilbao, Spain, and wandering the streets during a stifling heatwave. The cafés were alive with activity. Even young children played in the street or fountains while parents sat under patio lights and drank cold drinks late into the night. The outdoors were a common space, and the hours of activity accommodated the climate. Compare that to our fixed work hours, which require us to sleep a set number of hours even if we would do better to nap and wake and nap again.
When it comes to resilience, there is a big difference between adaptation to a stress and transformation of the factors that cause the stress to occur in the first place. The more systems change around us, the easier it will be to make personal transformations that help us remain calm, even when hot.
Liu, J., Varghese, B. M., Hansen, A., Xiang, J., Zhang, Y., Dear, K., Gourley, M., Driscoll, T., Morgan, G., Capon, A., & Bi, P. (2021). Is there an association between hot weather and poor mental health outcomes? A systematic review and meta-analysis. Environment International, 153. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.envint.2021.106533.