Let me start with a quick PSA:
We are going through a heat wave, and these temperatures can be extra challenging for people with anxiety. The increase in heat can cause symptoms that resemble panic or anxiety, like increased body temperature, elevated heart rate, and shortness of breath. If you have a history with any of these, it is important to take care of your mental health right now.
If somebody with a history of anxiety or panic attacks experiences (a combination of) these symptoms, they might mistakenly attribute these to an emotional cause, rather than the true (physical) cause: It Is Too Bloody Hot. This, in turn, can trigger a mental / emotional response.
In order words: if you feel overheated and your heart is beating really fast, your brain starts looking for the most obvious answer. If you’ve had anxiety or panic attacks before, it might conclude “Oh no, I’m anxious again”. (Or “I’m sick”. Or “Maybe I’m having a heart attack”.) It is very common for people to worry about their worries, or be anxious about their anxiety, so this process of misattribution can pull you into a real anxiety loop.
The Anxiety Loop
It could look like this:
Physical symptoms -> misattribution -> anxious thoughts -> more (or sustained) physical symptoms.
Before we get into potential solutions, let me tell you this: I get it. I have a long (long!) history with anxiety. I had my first panic attack when I was four years old, and I spent roughly two decades trying to figure out how to cope. I’ve been (mostly) fine for a few years now, but the past week has been a challenge.
When I wake up in the morning, I am already overheated. My tired brain takes this as a sign that I must be sick, because I am dizzy, nauseous, and exhausted (no matter how much I slept). Looking at the weather forecast, I see that it’s only going to get hotter today, and I panic. If I already feel this bad right now, how am I going to make it through the rest of the day? My heart rate spikes and I feel even worse. Can you see the anxiety loop playing out?
It wasn’t until I realized this was happening that I could interfere, break the cycle, and start feeling better.
What to do?
If you are more anxious during the hotter months (or days), here is some advice:
- Keep it cool
This one is painfully obvious, but I felt like I needed to start with this. Air out your house during the night or in the early morning (when it’s coolest outside), and close windows and doors when the temperatures outside get higher than the temperature inside.
- Awareness is key
Knowing that your symptoms come from an outside source (i.e. the weather) rather than a physical (e.g. illness) or mental cause (e.g. GAD), might be the first step to breaking the loop. Remind yourself that your body is just trying to cope with the heat. It’s not ‘broken’. It’s actually being quite helpful, most of the time. Acknowledge that your body is giving you signs about how it’s doing. If it’s within your control, listen, and do your best to cool down a little.
- Put a damp towel in the freezer
While taking a cold shower can help a lot, it might not be a viable option when you’re in the middle of a panic attack. Put a few damp towels or cloths in the freezer that you can use to cool yourself down a little when you need a quick fix. While ice cold drinks may be tempting, room temperature water is probably a better idea. Ice cold water can cause stomach pain and nausea, which… (you probably know where this is going…) can also trigger the anxiety loop.
- Calm your breath
For those of you who are already on the bandwagon (or ready to hop on), meditation can be really helpful to calm your mind and body. If you’re into yoga, but it’s too hot for vinyasa (flow), maybe try some hatha, yin, or restorative yoga. Yoga and meditation have long-term benefits, but can also help you slow down your heart rate and breath within minutes or even seconds.
- Slow down
Clearly, this is not the time to run a marathon, but many of us are still operating at ‘normal speed’. Take a few deep breaths and slow down. Move more slowly, be ok with a different level of productivity, plan less activities in your day, give yourself more time to eat, get dressed, et cetera – if that helps you.
- Go somewhere cool(er)
If you can’t keep your house cool, and you’re really struggling, see if there’s anywhere else you can go. Of course, this is more of a challenge during these weird times, but – at least in the Netherlands – places like restaurants, museums, and movie theaters have reopened, and they often have airconditioning. Sometimes, being in nature can help too. Hell, if it helps you to sit in your car with the airco on – go for it. This is not the time to judge your coping mechanisms. If you have a cool place close to home that is safe to go to, keep it in mind as a backup option.
- Eat smart
You might want to avoid very spicy and otherwise warming foods (like chili pepper, ginger, and cloves) during the hottest times. While salads and other cold and light foods might feel good – and they can certainly be helpful – please make sure to eat enough! (Not eating enough calories will just make you feel worse. It’s not worth it. Believe me.)
- Reach out
Of course, if your anxiety is severe (or if it has a physical cause), these things might not be enough. Reach out to a (mental) health professional if you need to. If you have medication, take them as prescribed. If you just need somebody to talk to, I’m here too. Feel free to reach out.
Most of all, I hope you’ll try to be gentle with yourself. It can be difficult to be in survival mode, especially when it seems like everybody is out there living their best lives. (Beach! Drinks! Barbecue!) Forget about that. It is ok if all you do today is survive. I know it’s hard, and I’m proud of you.
If anything, remember: this too shall pass. It’s not going to be this hot forever.
You’ve got this!