Last spring, I noticed for the first time that as the temperature climbed, so did my anxiety. On one of the first hot days in May, as I was standing and waiting for the subway, I began to lose control of my body — my mind was full of intrusive thoughts, I was drenched in sweat, and I felt like I couldn’t stand up anymore. Hunched over, my body entered a seizure-like state. I landed in the hospital for the afternoon and learned that what I had experienced was called a vasovagal attack: a combination of low blood pressure, a sudden drop in heart rate, dehydration, and anxiety that caused me to faint. The heat and humidity affected me in a way I had never experienced before.
Summer anxiety is not unusual, though. Research has confirmed that higher levels of anxiety during seasonal transitions are common, especially in the summer months. As psychotherapist Ellen Yom explained to HelloGiggles,
“Summer can be especially anxiety-producing for those who have experienced panic attacks in the past. The felt physiological symptoms are very intense during a panic attack, so a lot of people with this history can experience higher levels of anxiety during the summer months when the same physiological symptoms (sweating, palpitations, shaking, shortness of breath, feeling faint) are triggered.”
The connection makes sense — intense heat is associated with dehydration, and since dehydration can make people feel ill, the heat can cause us to feel more irritable and prone to anxious thoughts. Then, as we notice these physiological symptoms, it can exacerbate the amount of anxiety we feel.
Psychiatrist Carlene MacMillan explained that heat can increase our heart rate and cause changes in our breathing, meaning that “the brain is likely to interpret those physical symptoms as being caused by anxiety rather than the heat.” On top of this, humidity can make it harder to concentrate while decreasing our energy levels.
Understanding this connection allowed me to identify moments in the past when the relationship between heat and anxiety has taken a real toll on my body. Once, for example, after spending a sunny day at the beach and later taking a scorching hot shower, I noticed myself feeling faint, nauseous, and irritable. As I attempted to drive back home, I was unable to focus or feel in control and found myself incapable of making the journey. And last summer at a music festival, I started feeling short of breath and overcome with irrational fear. I ended up hysterically crying on the street and had to leave the event.
There’s another way summer weather can exacerbate feelings of anxiety: sleeping in high heat and humidity can worsen our quality of sleep, causing us to feel even more irritable. Before I installed my air conditioner this month, I noticed I was having trouble falling asleep. I spent hours tossing and turning while also feeling illogical anger toward my roommates for no real reason.
MacMillan has experienced this, too, telling HG that the air-conditioning once went out at her office and had a major affect on her colleagues.
“Last year the A/C in our office space was not working at one point, and we were very vocal to the landlord about getting it fixed because even us as therapists were more anxious and on edge without it in the high heat,” she said.
Meanwhile, those on psychiatric medications, such as clozapine or seroquel, can have trouble regulating their own body temperature, making them more vulnerable to the impact of heat.
In short, those with anxiety can have it rough in the summertime. So what can you do to alleviate heat-induced anxiety?
During heat waves, it’s important to minimize time spent outside. Be sure to pay attention to your body’s warning signs if you start to experience restlessness, fatigue, palpitations, shortness of breath, nausea, or insomnia. Other symptoms can include intrusive, unwanted thoughts, excessive worrying, a feeling of doom, hypervigilance, and irritability.
MacMillan recommends staying hydrated and connecting with friends (especially those with air conditioning). And, she said, “for extreme anxiety to the point where a person may be thinking of harming themselves, there is a skill called ‘ice-diving’ that can trigger a physiologic dive reflex that causes relaxation.” To ice-dive, place icy cold water on certain parts of the face to reset the nervous system.
Yom tells her clients to make sure that, in addition to staying hydrated, they are also eating enough food and exercising regularly because staying physically healthy is a key factor in managing anxiety. Yom also suggests patients carry around a paperbag in the summertime and breathe in and out of it whenever they feel lightheaded or faint.
When we notice ourselves getting increasingly anxious, our bodies can tense up, but Yom believes it is better to relax your body as much as possible: “Sitting with hands unclenched and palms resting next to you or on your lap, and breathing slowly and deeply is helpful. I would also suggest carrying around sweet snacks, such as nuts, dried fruit, and hard candies, to nibble on when feeling lightheaded.”
Thanks to therapy, I have come to better understand what I am experiencing and why it is happening, which in turn has allowed me to give my symptoms context and acknowledge them when they arise. As we enter a new summer season, I feel more equipped to take care of myself whenever it is hot and humid out — I hope you will, too.