How to beat summer anxiety, according to a psychologist

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Moya Crockett
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If the heatwave has left you feeling more anxious than usual, you’re not alone. We consulted a psychologist to find out why hot weather can cause anxiety to spike, and what to do about it. 

We all have an image of our ideal summer selves. Our hair will be beachy, and our bare skin will glow. We’ll wear Reformation tea dresses and soft leather sandals that we picked up in a boutique in Seville. Our APC Jeanne basket bag will never get scuffed, and our toenail polish won’t chip. We’ll go to weddings and barbeques and rooftop bars, we’ll have picnics in the park and swim in the sea, and everything will be relaxed and photogenic and memorable, memorable, memorable.

Of course, the reality of summer is a little different. Hot weather doesn’t override all the stresses of everyday life: work deadlines still exist, relationship troubles aren’t extinguished and pay day still doesn’t come soon enough (in fact, all those weddings and weekends away are liable to leave you feeling more strapped than usual). Sometimes, although saying so feels blasphemous, it feels altogether too hot, especially when you’re crammed onto an overloaded, under-ventilated commuter train at 8am. And for many women, the higher the temperature rises past 20C, the more anxious they feel.

While hot weather and humidity don’t cause anxiety, they can exacerbate symptoms for some people. “I often feel more tense and fraught when it’s boiling outside,” says Adelaide, 29. “I used to think that it was just because I was worried about getting sunburned – I’m very pale – but I think it runs deeper than that. Despite the fact that I know I should relax and enjoy the weather, I often feel uncomfortable and find it difficult to shake off an overwhelming sense of dread.”

Hot hot heat: Londoners relaxing on Hampstead Heath on 26 July 2018 

Dr Rose Aghdami is a charted psychologist, anxiety specialist and the creator of ResilientME, an app designed to help people who struggle with anxiety and stress cope with everyday challenges. She says that while we might feel like it’s abnormal to be anxious during a heatwave, it’s actually very common.

“Anxiety is about being uncomfortable with uncertainty and feeling threatened by lots of things, so a person with anxious tendencies will be hyper-alert to anything – such as intense heat – that might cause them distress, agitation or discomfort,” she explains.

The knowledge that there’s nothing you can do about the heat or humidity can also cause anxiety to flare up. “Feeling out of control of a situation will often trigger anxiety or exacerbate it,” Dr Aghdami says. 

“So if someone is feeling overly hot and they know they can’t change the weather, that might make them feel trapped, and then the tension creeps in.”

Blue skies, brown grass and rising anxiety: Hyde Park, summer 2018 

For some people, being too hot or dehydrated can make them feel like a panic or anxiety attack is looming, Dr Aghdami continues.

In part, this is because many of the physiological symptoms of being overheated (such as sweating, shortness of breath and feeling faint) are similar to feelings of anxiety. “People will interpret an ordinary feeling – being hot in hot weather – as if they’re getting into an anxiety state.”

This can provoke a self-perpetuating cycle, she explains. “They don’t want to get into an anxiety state, so they’ll tense their muscles and breathe more shallowly than normal. That will then exacerbate the anxiety state that they fear is already happening.”

Watch: Seven simple ways to make positive life changes

The intensely social side of summer can also cause anxiety symptoms to spike, particularly if we feel obligated to attend endless events. (On the flipside, feeling like we don’t have enough summer plans can exacerbate low moods and depression.) Something as simple as a friend’s barbeque can be overwhelming if we don’t think we have a choice about whether to attend or not, she notes.

“Very often, the word ‘should’ can lead to a feeling of anxiety for some people. If you think you ‘should’ be enjoying the barbeque or you ‘should’ be outside all the time because it’s lovely weather for a change, then that puts a lot of pressure on you.”

Then there’s the strain of organising The Best Holiday Ever. “In my clinic work I often come across people who put a lot of pressure on themselves to have a very successful holiday away,” says Dr Aghdami.

Worrying about the practical and emotional logistics of a trip – from making a connecting flight to avoiding a row with their partner – can make people feel “very pressured and anxious”, she explains. 

So what’s to be done? If your anxiety is making it difficult for you to live a full life, or you think you may have an anxiety disorder, it’s important to seek professional help (you can find resources via Mind). In the meantime, though, we’ve asked Dr Aghdami and psychologist Dr Zoubida Guernina to share their top tips for tackling summer anxiety below.

The holiday itself: great. The planning: stressful 

1. Drop your shoulders and breathe 

When you first start feeling anxious, Dr Aghdami recommends focusing on tackling the physical symptoms. Drop your shoulders, breathe out, then practise abdominal breathing (also known as low or diaphragmatic breathing) by taking low breaths into the belly, rather than high, shallow breaths into the chest.

“By taking charge of your physical state in that simple way, you’ll be able to think more clearly – because no one thinks clearly when they’re in an agitated state,” she explains.

“Then you’ll realise you’ve changed something and made yourself feel more comfortable entirely on your own.”

2. Take control of your surroundings

Don’t allow your anxiety to dictate what you do and where you go, but if you find that intense heat puts you on edge, there are steps you can take to feel calmer. While you can’t dictate the weather, taking charge of your own physical state can help prevent anxiety from spiralling.

“Keep cool by drinking water, protecting yourself from sunburn and avoiding going out during the hottest hours of the day,” says Dr Guernina. “And try to connect with good friends and do things that you find enjoyable and relaxing.”

The heatwave hits Manchester!

3. Challenge ‘what-if’ thoughts

“We believe our thoughts as if they’re facts, and anxious thoughts tend to be future-focused,” explains Dr Aghdami. “They’re usually along the lines of ‘what if’: what if I can’t cope with the weather? What if I get really hot and faint?”

Cognitive behavioural therapy (CBT) focuses on retraining a person’s way of thinking to ease their anxiety. A simple way of reaping some of the benefits of CBT, says Dr Aghdami, is to try to pick up on your “what-if thoughts” and remind yourself that they’re “mostly speculation”.

“Asking yourself questions like ‘what’s the worst that can happen? Am I being rational here?’ can sometimes help ease those what-if thoughts.”

4. Practise positive self-talk

It might sound trite, but reminding yourself that you’ve got through anxious spells in the past can help soothe nerves.

“Positive self-talk can help a person feels like they’re controlling their experience, instead of the weather or the temperature or their physical state controlling them,” Dr Aghdami says.

If you’re stuck on a sweltering bus or in a crowded, overheated bar and find feelings of unease creeping in, tell yourself that you’ll get through the experience, just like you have before.

“Consciously thinking things like ‘it won’t last long’, ‘I’ve been hot before and I’ve managed it previously, so I can manage it again’ or ‘I’m feeling a little bit better now than I did before’ can all help manage feelings of anxiety,” says Dr Aghdami.

Or – perhaps most comforting of all – remind yourself that September’s just around the corner.

Images: Getty Images / Pexels