Why you lose your cool in the heat

Andrew Badham 2018-12-06 15:02:33


It’s getting hot, uncomfortably hot, and as the temperature rises, you might find your temperament changing with it. Chances are, you’re probably feeling a bit more on edge, a little more agitated, perhaps even a little aggressive. Of course, so is everyone else. After all, they’re baking in the same nationwide sauna as you are; a sauna which is only set to get worse as summer marches on and climate change fuels it on. Of course, it might not be the heat that is shortening your fuse; there are simply so many possible reasons for a foul mood. Maybe it’s your spouse leaving the wet towels on the bed again, or your co-worker messing up those reports again, or maybe those problems only seem like problems in the heat.

Anyone with a dollop of self-awareness knows that when you’re stressed or upset already, the little things in life don’t seem so little. Small irritations and bugbears turn into outrages and injustices. Even if you’re only feeling a little under the weather, the slight shift in mood colours your entire view of the world. The same is true of heat.

 This not groundbreaking news either. In 1986 a research team analysed the frequency of angry honking at traffic lights. As you might have expected, the honking increased in warmer weather, especially if the driver had no aircon and had to rely on rolling down the window. If you’ve been agitated while driving in the heat, that story might have felt intuitive to you, but it still doesn’t explain why.

The simple reason is that heat activates your alertness. Your heart rate, blood pressure and vigilance rise as more stress hormones like cortisol are produced. It’s why you’re more likely to wake up from a small noise on hot summer’s night than in the dead of winter. Essentially, your body is going into fight or flight mode, which means that we’re going to see a whole lot more scenarios as times to fight or run away; thus, summer grumpiness.

Beyond plain old foul moods, we’re also more likely to make mistakes in hot weather. Another study found that heat impaired cognition but increased reaction times. In other words, hot and flustered people were more likely to act rashly and inaccurately.

The wonderful thing about realising that it is the soaring temperatures and not your colleague that is stoking your rage is that it’s simple to fix. Find a way to cool down your core temperature. Simply blowing air on your skin doesn’t often do the trick. Rather, try to cool down your head and neck with a cool cloth. Those are both areas which lose heat quickly, so it will speed up the process.

Of course, there may be scenarios where you can’t cool yourself down and you simply have to sweat it out. In those cases, it’s important to remind yourself that the way you feel may be more a result of the weather than the social climate. When we know that our anger or frustration is not directed at anyone or anything, it’s easier to manage. More importantly, hopefully, that knowledge will stop us from having a rash, heat-induced conversation with someone that does some real damage. So remember, sometimes keeping a cool head means literally keeping a cool head.

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