Three subtle ways climate change affects your mental health

Climate change is impacting us in ways we might not always notice. It can manifest in the environment outside our windows or through subtle effects on our bodies. Many are beginning to recognize its impact: 64% of Americans are concerned about climate change, and 1 in 10 report anxiety or depression related to it, prompting some to seek professional help.

Even if you haven’t experienced the direct trauma of a wildfire or hurricane or lost sleep worrying about the planet’s future, research indicates that climate change may still be subtly affecting your mental health and well-being.

Heatwaves and dust storms can lead to irritability and aggression, while air pollution has been associated with depression and psychotic disorders. Additionally, rising carbon dioxide (CO2) levels can impair cognitive function.

“Climate change is really an experiment that humanity is running on itself,” said Michael Ranney, PhD, a cognitive psychologist at the University of California, Berkeley.

According to NASA, last summer was the hottest on record since 1880, and this summer might break new records. It’s an opportune time to educate yourself on the potential mental health consequences of extreme heat, air pollution, and high CO2 levels, and learn how to protect yourself.

A 2022 study revealed that on extremely hot days, there is an increase in hospital emergency room visits for mental health issues like anxiety, schizophrenia, self-harm, and child behavioral disorders. Suicide rates also rise during heatwaves, with a recent meta-analysis suggesting a 1% increase in suicides for each 1.8-degree Fahrenheit rise in local temperature.

Heatwaves can also increase irritability and violence. In the 1800s, Belgian astronomer Adolphe Quetelet observed a surge in violent crime during periods of intense heat in France. Modern studies continue to link heat with homicides and assaults, with a 2023 study in Chicago noting a spike in crime during extreme heatwaves. Analysis of about 4 billion tweets over six years found that the number of hate messages rose with extreme temperatures.

It’s not just humans who are affected. Dogs are more likely to bite on hot days, and other species, from magpies to bumblebees, also show signs of confusion and poor functioning in extreme heat.

Most research on heat and mental health examines correlations between weather data and crime statistics, but establishing direct cause-and-effect is challenging. Experimental studies are rare. In one example, police officers training in a hot room were more likely to draw and fire their weapons than those training in cooler conditions.

Conducting such studies can be complex, costly, and unethical. No one wants to subject volunteers to extreme heat and observe their reactions with weapons, explained Craig Anderson, PhD, a psychologist at Iowa State University.

However, physiological mechanisms can explain the emotional changes brought by heat. High temperatures often disrupt sleep, and “sleep is very closely linked to mental health outcomes,” said Emma Lawrance, PhD, a clinical neuroscientist at Imperial College London. A 2021 review connected poor sleep to more frequent negative moods, increased irritability, and the worsening of conditions like schizophrenia.

Source: WebMD