Tuesday, July 8, 2008

Hot Under The Collar: Keeping Your Cool In Warm Weather

Charles Dudley Warner, editor of The Hartford Courant, said it in 1897 and his words hold true today: “Everybody talks about the weather, but no one does anything about it.”
We are familiar with the many connections between the weather and our physical health. Outbreaks of influenza are generally associated with cold, winter weather. Episodes of allergies can be triggered by weather. Predictions of hot, dry winds generally are accompanied by increased use of antihistamines and inhalers. Some among us can accurately predict weather changes by levels of physical pain in knees, elbows, and hips. Other connections between weather and health may be less familiar to us. Current studies indicate that certain weather conditions impact our circulatory and cardiac systems, the development of certain cancers, immune responses, and susceptibility to infectious disease. Such information can assist with preventative measures but can, as Charles Dudley Warner reminds us, never change the actual weather.
So here we are with temperatures ranging from the upper 90s to the low 100s and we’re too hot to care much about the words of Charles Dudley Warner or about what the scientific community may be studying. It is important, however, to remember that extreme weather does, indeed, impact our overall health and our abilities to function. While we seldom experience extreme cold weather, summers here in the Inland Valley can be hot. Really hot.
We are familiar with the term “winter blues”, that sense of melancholy sometimes accompanying short winter days with little sunshine. We are less familiar with the emotions and behaviors associated with hot weather. Just as, given sufficient time and lack of attention, those blues sometimes progress to depression or other serious disorders, heat related emotions and behaviors could become intrusive and serious.
The University of Texas at Austin’s Department of Psychology studied the impact of heat on human behavior and noted a connection between heat and aggression. On hot days drivers of cars without air conditioning become impatient more quickly than drivers of cars with air conditioning and exhibit increased horn honking at cars failing to move when the traffic light turns green. The studies also noted that physical performance decreases as the temperature increases and attributed this, in part, to dehydration and its resultant fatigue. Cognitive performance also appeared to decline as the temperatures rose. Other studies have also noted the connection between increased temperatures and increased agitation and aggression.
From these studies we learn what we had already suspected. During really hot weather, we can easily lose our patience and our tempers. We feel tired. Sometimes it seems as though we can’t think clearly. We lack motivation to do much of anything. And often we just want to be left alone.
While accepting the wisdom that we can do nothing about the hot weather itself, we can do much to help ourselves weather it. Simply acknowledging that heat takes its toll on us is an important first step. During hot weather, even with good air conditioning, sleep is often disturbed. We toss and turn and climb out of bed feeling less than rested. Without air conditioning we are often unable to sleep comfortably. Dawn breaks and already we feel tired and irritable. Our energy levels are decreased and so we may drink more coffee to wake us up and energize us. And, or course, the coffee can add to our levels of irritation and even our levels of dehydration thus contributing to the heat related spiral of irritability.
Generally these discomforts and symptoms remain manageable. However, the irritability associated with extreme heat can quickly become anger or rage, which can lead to problematic behaviors.
We are at least minimally familiar with methods of maintaining physical health during hot weather. Drink plenty of water. Wear light clothing. Avoid stressful physical activity during the heat of the day. Wear a hat. Stay in air conditioning as much as possible, either in our homes or at shopping centers. Never, ever leave any living thing in a closed car not even for a minute.
Tending to our emotional health during hot weather is also crucial. Just knowing that we’re more susceptible to irritation and anger can help us help ourselves. And possibly the single most important thing we can do for others and ourselves is to count to ten. When the car in front of us doesn’t respond right away to the green light, count to ten. When the sales clerk in the grocery store doesn’t give us our change as fast as we’d like, count to ten. When the price of gasoline goes up again instead of down, count to ten. Remember that almost no one sleeps well during hot weather and nearly everyone feels tired and irritable. So count to ten.
Count to ten until our internal temperature goes down enough to at least match that of the external temperature. Drink a glass of water. And smile. Winter will come soon enough and then we can talk about days so cool we have to perhaps put on a heavier shirt. We’ll talk about that weather, too, but, of course, we will do absolutely nothing about it except to take very good care of ourselves. Because taking care of ourselves is the one thing we can do about the weather.

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