Heat can have psychological effects
The prolonged heat wave has engulfed most of the United States this summer brings back many memories of my childhood.
My grandmother had many colorful expressions, including one which described hot weather. "It's hotter than the hinges of Hades," she would exclaim as she cooked fried chicken, corn on the cob, mashed potatoes and gravy, and cherry pie for the noon meal, which was referred to as dinner. This was all prepared in a small, poorly ventilated kitchen without air conditioning in the piney woods of East Texas. A breeze in the summertime could be as rare as winning the lottery, but fans were plentiful and every room had at least one. My favorite was the oscillating type that swung back and forth in a hundred and eighty degree arch. The cooler evenings were filled with croquet, star gazing, and stories from my grandfather's childhood in rural Illinois. Fresh lemonade and homemade ice cream helped cool things off before bedtime. In order to try to get some measure of comfort at night when retiring, we draped wet towels over the window screens and turned on the attic fan, creating a brief experience of cool air in the bedrooms. The challenge was to fall asleep before the towels dried out, and during some summer nights, I remember my grandfather getting up in the middle of the night and wetting the towels again. Air conditioning was unknown to us and during one period of time during the 1950's during a prolonged drought, my grandparents spent much of their time in Colorado in order to escape the heat. Fortunately, modern conveniences have made homes, offices, and automobiles respites from the heat but with a negative consequence--the extraordinary electric bills that many of us have faced.
The psychological consequences of prolonged heat are not without notice, especially for those of us treating individuals with psychological problems. Seasonal Affective Disorder, which is common among many individuals during the shorter days of winter, has its counterpart during the heat of the summer for other individuals. Let's examine some of these at this time:
• The effectiveness of some of the medications used treating psychological disorders is affected by excessive perspiration, which often occurs when individuals are working in non-climate controlled conditions during the summer. The chemical balance which the medication is designed to restore in the individual may dissipate and lose its effectiveness, thus necessitating closer monitoring by the prescribing physician.
• Many mental health professionals believe that there is a correlation between those exposed to prolonged heat and lower frustration tolerance, irritability, and anger. Those individuals working in activities which require physical exertion, attention to small details, and exposure to other stressful elements in their work environment such as noise, dust, etc., may experience even more difficulty when the temperature is elevated.
• Activities which help individuals deal with stress, including recreation and hobbies, often have to be diverted, postponed, or altered in some fashion during periods of excessive heat. For example, those who enjoy gardening may find that the prolonged heat dramatically alters this activity and takes away an enjoyable, healthy diversion. Many outdoor sporting events have to be curtailed or otherwise modified to prevent negative medical consequences. The elderly and those with certain medical conditions affected by heat have to be especially cautious about the length of time they spend in elevated temperatures.
Next week I will continue my discussion of this topic and look at some suggestions for assisting individuals in coping with the heat wave of 1998.
Copyright c 1998 Harold H. LeCrone, Jr., Ph.D.