Wherever you go, no matter what the weather, always bring your own sunshine.
-Anthony J. D’Angelo
For the past few weeks I’ve been noticing an increasingly common discussion topic with my counseling clients which has been noticeable because it’s not a conventional counseling topic. The discussions have been centered on weather - but not the typical “how’s the weather” type chit chat. Instead, these discussions have revolved around firsthand experiences of drastic climate changes occurring in places where several clients have lived their entire lives, places like Florida, Texas, or Arizona.
As I’ve listened to these discussions, I’ve noticed a pattern of what sounds like first ever experiences of weather to an extreme - to the point that they’re beginning to influence mental health and emotional states. I’ve been surprised by these reports I suppose because so far this summer we’ve had pretty normal weather here where I live, until just this past week when the weather turned scorching hot. But all of this has gotten me to thinking back to times I’ve seen weather conditions result in unexpected behaviors.
An early memory of mood induced weather is from my childhood when our family used to attend our local church on hot Sundays throughout the summer. I can remember finding my father’s increasing discomfort more interesting than the dreadfully long sermons, so I would watch sweat begin to bead on my dad’s forehead and then eventually see it running down the sides of his face. Dad would try to maintain his composure and wipe sweat with a handkerchief periodically, but even at my young age I could discern his growing frustration as the sermon drew on and the sweat got rolling. Of course, I also have vivid memories of the drives home after those sweaty Sundays when my Dad would use words I knew church people weren’t supposed to use as he criticized our pastor for being too cheap to invest in air conditioning for the church.
In my earliest adult years, I learned about how weather can influence a whole culture when I moved to Tacoma, Washington. It was there in the Pacific Northwest that I learned that the incidence of depression was significantly higher because of the prolonged periods of rain where there can be months at a time without a single ray of sunshine. I was also surprised to learn that some people received prescriptions from their medical providers to have what were called “sunrise simulators” in their bedrooms to avoid things like seasonal affective disorder.
During my military years, I had several unpleasant experiences with weather extremes and discomfort which left lasting impressions on me as well. On one occasion, I had to endure the outdoors for twelve straight days and nights of non-stop torrential rain which left me soaked to the skin with no dry clothes to change into and nowhere to go to get out of the weather. The severe physical discomfort drained energy, increased irritability, and exacerbated frustrations for all of us involved, and it created one of the more significant leadership challenges in my early career.
Then just last week, our household went through an unexpected trial as we were repairing the leak in our ceiling, which required our air conditioning to be temporarily turned off for some extended periods. This was unfortunate because the periods of no air conditioning happened to coincide with the heatwave that finally hit us, so we had two nights of less than comfortable sleeping. It was interesting though to see how just a bit of sleep disturbance resulted in some atypical family dynamics including a few spirited disagreements over trivial things that normally wouldn’t have been sources of tension.
Reflecting on these experiences of extreme cold, rain, or even mere discomfort caused by elevated heat reminded me again of just how fortunate it is to be able to be inside or protected from the elements while there are so many people in the world without such comforts or luxuries. We have many resources to shield ourselves from harsh weather conditions, unlike many who are homeless and have no alternative but to endure the brutality of the elements.
When you consider these or other similar examples of how easily weather or extreme temperatures can influence behavior, it should come as no surprise then to consider many other impacts that weather can produce on human behavior. Numerous research studies, conducted repeatedly, have demonstrated significantly high temperatures exert a dramatic influence on our mental health, leading to a series of unexpected psychological and behavioral changes.
Multiple studies across a variety of demographics have found correlations between elevated temperatures and an increase in irritability. This isn't mere impatience or slight annoyance; we're talking about heightened, intense agitation that can be disruptive to our lives and relationships. Similarly, symptoms of depression have been observed to escalate during periods of high heat, creating a bleak mental landscape that can significantly hamper individuals' functionality and quality of life. A particularly alarming revelation from these studies is the disturbing rise in suicide rates that coincide with spikes in temperature - a poignant reminder of how environmental conditions can potentially play a pivotal role in severe mental health outcomes.
Delving deeper beyond the direct mental health implications, it's crucial to acknowledge that these harsh conditions can foster a shift in behavioral patterns as well. There is evidence of extreme heat contributing to increased aggression, a facet that can lead to a myriad of societal problems. It is alarming to see how a rise in temperature can cause tempers to flare and potentially result in violent acts. Moreover, instances of domestic violence have been reported to surge during hot spells, thereby painting a grim picture of the indirect victims of environmental adversities.
Another noticeable behavioral change, as highlighted in several studies, is the escalated consumption of alcohol or usage of other substances as coping mechanisms. Individuals may resort to such actions as a means of distraction or temporary relief from the physically and emotionally draining conditions, thereby posing a significant risk for substance use disorders.
Interestingly, research into this area has extended beyond the realm of mood and behavior, venturing into cognitive functioning as well. High temperatures have been associated with impairments in critical cognitive faculties, such as memory, attention, and reaction time. This is especially concerning considering the potential consequences for safety and performance in work and everyday tasks. A momentary lapse in attention while driving, or a delayed reaction time during a crucial decision-making scenario, could have catastrophic implications.
Sleep, one of the primary cornerstones of both physical and mental health, is another victim of extreme heat. We've all experienced those restless, fitful nights where the heat is oppressively high, resulting in poor quality of sleep or even complete sleep deprivation. What's particularly concerning is that these sleep difficulties can amplify pre-existing mental health symptoms, creating a vicious cycle that may be challenging to break.
As I consider all these impacts of weather on mental health, I’m also recalling the times I’ve provided critical incident stress debriefing and doing EMDR Therapy for survivors of recent natural disasters such as forest fires, tsunami waves, tornados, and hurricanes, all of which can be a result of extreme weather conditions. All together it makes me increasingly more aware of how we really can’t take those nice mild sunny days we enjoy for granted as they may not be as common in the future as they’ve been in the past. It’s also a great reminder of how important it is to be mindful and grateful for the comforts most of us enjoy like climate controlled work and living spaces, clothes to keep us warm, or cool, or dry, and the luxury to get out of the elements when we need to.
One last shock for me last week was reading that the National Football League’s Hall of Fame Game is coming up this week which tells me that summer is just about over, and therefore fall is just around the corner. This is good news though because it means the simmering days of summer will surely give way soon to the cooler temperatures and warm hues of autumn, while pumpkin spice will be in the air and of course on the menu at Starbucks – it’s my favorite season of the year if you didn’t guess that already!
So, I’m wishing you a pleasant week and if you should be so blessed as to have some pleasant weather, definitely take the opportunity to get outside and soak it up. Let it lift your mind and spirit to spread some sunshine to everyone around you!
Have a great week!