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Hot Anxiety: The Invisible Victims Of A Heat Wave

Severe heat doesn't just threaten the physically vulnerable such as babies and the elderly. It also poses a serious risk to those suffering from anxiety.

In a very hot Hangzhou, China on Monday.
In a very hot Hangzhou, China on Monday.
Marie-Pierre Genecand

GENEVA — The refreshing, soothing and energizing rain finally came. Perhaps with the exception of the Sting fan who resented the Paléo Festival show being rained on, people welcomed the night's showers with open arms. It was a cooling relief in a region where a devastating heat wave has caused a 15% increase in the mortality rate of older citizens.

We know it by now because the message has been repeated time and time again: In case of abnormally high temperatures, we must take special care of children and old people, making sure to hydrate and feed them properly. Less visible in the media are people suffering from anxiety, whose conditions also worsen during severe heat.

"I could slap everyone. I am constantly irritated. My body can't rest. I feel exhausted," says 61-year-old Edith, who suffers from a mixed anxiety-depression disorder. She doesn't typically feel this bad. With a cognitive behavioral approach and emotion-centered therapy (ECT), this receptionist in early retirement manages to curb her anxiety fits. "If I shut the curtains and close the windows to keep the fresh air in, I get claustrophobic, and if I go outside I can't breathe," she says. "I get obsessed by it. So much so that it triggers fits. I recently started taking anxiolytics."

Defense mechanism

Emna Ragama, a psychotherapist and psychologist in Geneva, explains that when patients are exposed to high temperatures, their bodies trigger defense mechanisms that cause hyperventilation, dizziness, leg numbness and the sensation of running out of oxygen. "Sometimes fear can cloud their judgment," she says. "They feel exhausted by the fits and they develop symptoms of depression. If the heat wave lasts too long, they tend to avoid as much as possible and this leads to their isolation. What's more, during the summer holidays, they may no longer be in contact with their usual network of friends."

This is what 30-year-old Karen knows well. An independent consultant who works from home, she says that she began refusing any and all social invitations when the heat wave began. "I always picture the worst-case scenario: overcrowded buses with no air conditioning, restless crowds, long queues in supermarkets," she says. "I am so afraid of being trapped that I stay at home. I fall back into these avoiding strategies that I managed to overcome. It makes me feel guilty and intensifies my anxiety. I feel lonely and isolated."

Ragama says there's no real solution. "You need to accept living with these high temperatures and stop fighting them," she says. "You can try to immerse yourself in swimming pools as often as possible." Going out for a walk in the woods, she says, can also have a positive effect on the nervous system.

Regama also advises her patients to engage in sessions of mindfulness. "People are not idiots," she says. "They know what's not right with them. The aim of the emotion-centered therapy is to accompany the person on the their road to well-being. It's important to take the drama out of it."

Playing down the importance of the heat wave is at the heart of this paradox. The more the media report and comment about it, the more difficult the situation becomes for the anxiety-stricken. "I often tell my patients to keep away from the news," Regama says. "Since the start of the heat wave, their body has adapted to it and the stress caused by the thought that "heat wave equals danger" is more noxious than the heat wave iself."

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This Happened—November 30: WTO Seattle Give Birth To "No Global"

Updated Nov. 30, 2023 at 12:10 p.m.

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