Anxiety in the heatwave: 6 ways to manage it
Updated: Jul 19, 2022
This week I polled my audience about the effect of the heat on their anxiety. 55% the respondents said they feel more anxious when the temperature rises (20% felt less anxious and 20% the same as always).
Here are six common reasons for this and my tips for managing it:
1) The body’s attempt to cool itself in the heat mimics anxiety symptoms
Your heart rate increases in the heat because the skin requires 2-4 times the amount of blood it usually requires to stay cool. This means your breathing rate needs to increase (as there's no point the heart beating faster if there's not more oxygen coming in to oxygenate the blood), plus we get sweaty as we perspire to keep our core temperature down.
All of these heat-regulation symptoms are also how we physiologically respond when we are stressed.
Even if your logical brain knows that it’s the heat, your nervous system may not so easily buy into this and can react as though it’s in danger (in the same way that you can feel anxious when you've drunk coffee). Frustratingly this can then increase all the symptoms, leading to a worsening of the anxiety feeling! No fun.
At best this makes you feel uncomfortable, at worst this can lead to a panic attack. A panic attack is when your normal physiological stress response is accompanied by worries that something really bad is happening to you, such as having “I’m having heart attack or a stroke”.
How to cope:
Try to stay cool. I know that sounds very obvious but I was at the park yesterday and two people were complaining about how hot they were but continued to sit in the full sun! Prioritise your wellbeing over a tan. Shade, pulling the curtains, cold drinks, cool showers etc will all help.
But if you start to catastrophise, try to hold in mind the above information: that your body’s self-regulation system is similar to anxiety and that you’re most likely to be hot rather than anything else. Use soothing breathing techniques (e.g. square breathing) to calm down or try this audio here.
2) Research shows that we have more cortisol in our system when it’s hot
Cortisol (the stress hormone) naturally fluctuates in our system around our circadian rhythm (it's higher in the morning) and this research also shows that it’s naturally higher in the heat. This has been linked to evidence of higher rates of crime and aggression in hot weather. Indeed in my poll several people alluded to this tendency to be more irritable or “hot and bothered” which fits with this.
How to cope:
Name it to tame it! Remind yourself that your irritability makes sense given the heat and keep coming back to that. Often our minds are quick to judge us when we are snappy and then we feel guilty or can worry that something worse is going on. Keep coming back to the simplest explanation: that you are hot and are limited with how much you can do about this!
Plus I’d recommend reducing the amount of stuff in your day to reduce the burden and allow yourself to take more rests. I know that’s hard if you’re used to rushing around but if your body is lethargic in the heat then listen to it and find somewhere cool to lie and rest even if it's just for short intervals.
3) Feeling self-conscious in summer clothing which makes it harder to cover up
If you are body conscious (and according to recent research 50% of people are) then the summer can be really challenging because your go-to cover up methods may feel too hot. So you feel trapped in a no-win situation: wear clothes that are cool but feel anxious because you are self-conscious or wear cover-up clothes but feel hot which can make you more irritable and anxious anyway.
This can also exacerbate a pre-existing eating disorder or disordered eating patterns which a few people in my survey shared was happening to them.
How to cope:
We won't be able to solve a long-standing issue with eating, self-esteem or body dysmorphia with a quick tip here I'm afraid. Why not consider this post as the sign you've been waiting for to go get professional help though? I have a suggestion for an eating disorder nutritionist here or you can contact me for help with self-esteem.
That said, you could try to use a technique called thought defusion for concerns about your body, this is when we try to disengage from thoughts so we can carry on our day. What this looks like: The next time you notice a thought like "my arms look like batwings" say to yourself "thank your mind for trying to help" and then ask yourself how helpful it is to listen to your mind in that moment? Don’t get pulled into how true or not the thought is but weigh up whether it helps you to be effective in the moment (or in this case, cool in the moment) then follow that.
4) Feeling unable to do usual activities that keep anxiety at bay such as exercising
With the extreme weather warning we are being advised not to do our usual high-energy activities. If you rely on being busy or activities like exercise to cope with anxiety or the busyness of your brain or then this will feel very hard.
How to cope: When our usual coping behaviours are blocked anxiety may increase in the short term. However, anxiety is a response to make us remove ourselves from threat, and if there isn’t one then this gives your threat-response centre a chance to recalibrate.
Notice the fluctuations in your anxiety and urges to default to your usual coping methods, you can even rate these out of 10 over the course of the day. Many people worry that their anxiety will steadily climb and that they won’t cope but find it helpful when they test this our and discover what actually happens.
Whilst your anxiety may increase in the short term, riding it out in this way and learning from the experience has the potential to help you in the longer term to feel less dependent on these activities as anxiety-management tools and increase your self-confidence.
If this is really hard for you there may be long-standing difficulties with managing intense emotions that you need more support with. Feel free to contact me to discuss it or you may want to consider my online programme for women which helps with this.
5) Sleep is disturbed
Sleep is not only harder to come by when we are uncomfortable from the heat, but we also feel less restored by it at this time too. We all know that poor sleep impacts on our mental health and makes us less tolerant of the stresses of the day, so this is far from ideal.
How to cope:
If you expect to sleep poorly in the heat then any sleep you do get will feel like a pleasant bonus. This may sound like a pessimistic way of helping you to cope but without a fancy air-con unit it’s simply a fact that your sleep won’t be great at the moment! So planning your days around this will take the pressure off you to fall asleep quickly and without that worry hanging over you sleep may come more readily. Can you cancel anything whilst it’s really hot? Or make simple changes to your routine like eating cold, easy to prepare meals rather than cooking your usual dinners?
You may find the Military Technique helpful for falling asleep too, this is a short progressive muscle relaxation technique which this video demonstrates.
6) Worries about what this heat means for those around us
Many people I’m working with have voiced worries about the environment or elderly family members. Change or unprecedented events (like a heat wave) increase uncertainty which is fertile breeding ground for anxiety.
How to cope:
Try to come back to the genuine areas of control you have around these topics of worry and problem solve those areas so that you have an action plan, then try to let go (by using distraction or mindfulness) of the worries that you have no control over.
For example with elderly relations you may want to make a rota with others family to check-in with them. You may need to tolerate some feelings of being unable to control everything for them though.
Regarding eco-anxiety, this has understandably grown in recent years due to the alarming warnings about the environment. I’m not going to be able to address this in detail as it’s a complicated issue, but there are helpful blogs that you may benefit from looking at if this is new to you with this current heat-wave.
Get more help with worrying with this blog or download my 4-steps to manage worrying or overthinking here.
More summer related reading for your wellbeing
Heading on holiday soon? This blog about how to relax into it may be helpful.