October 30th, 2020 by
We all know that feeling cold can have a negative result on our physical health and well-being, but did you realise that it can also impact on our mental health? Of course, mental health and physical health are very closely linked and any downturn in either one can be detrimental to the other. That said, feeling cold can impact on mental health directly and not just as a result of changes in physical health. When you consider this, it is, therefore, no surprise to learn that feeling warm can actually improve mental health.
Back in 1943, Abraham Maslow published his Hierarchy of Needs theory, in which he depicted the stages humans must move through in their search for ‘Self-Actualisation’ – the ultimate psychological objective. The theory is that you cannot move onto the next stage until you have achieved the one prior to it. The very first stage is ‘Physiological Needs’ which means that you must have the basics: food, water, shelter, rest, warmth and so on before you can move on to any other stage of growth. These needs are fundamental and without them, you can’t meet ‘Safety’, ‘Love and Belonging’, ‘Esteem’, or ‘Self Actualisation’. This goes a long way to explaining why feeling warm is so important and how significant the consequences of not having it are.
Anxiety and low mood in winter
Research has shown that it is common for anxiety to increase in the winter. Seasonal affective disorder (SAD) affects around 12 million people in northern Europe, where changes in temperature and shorter daylight hours are most pronounced. The chill in the air itself can work against you through winter – it’s physically more difficult for us to breathe in cold air. In the event of a panic attack, this can exacerbate hyperventilation (a condition where someone takes too many quick, shallow breaths,
Sleep and mental health
Good quality sleep is vital to maintaining good mental health. Sleep helps us recover from both physical and mental exertion. This can become a vicious cycle as lack of sleep can cause health problems and health problems can prevent us from sleeping well. Addressing sleep problems as part of mental health treatment is really important but something that can often be overlooked.
A cooler temperature is something that can affect sleep patterns, disrupting a person’s circadian rhythm. Your body temperature naturally drops when your body is preparing for sleep, but if it drops too much – as often happens when your room temperature rapidly falls during the night – it can disrupt your sleep. This doesn’t necessarily mean you’ll wake up, but it may well mean you don’t get the deep, restful sleep you need to feel refreshed in the morning. Lack of good quality sleep is a major contributor to depression and anxiety.
How warmth can improve mental health
Warmth can be a real source of comfort when we feel under the weather: a soft blanket, a cup of hot chocolate or bowl of steaming soup, a roaring fire, or even a snuggle up with the dog can all make us feel not only physically better but psychologically better.
A study in 2012 showed that chronic loneliness is associated with a tendency to take warm baths and that physical warmth could have a positive impact on mental health. In a different trial, participants who took a hot bath twice a week for 4 weeks showed significantly reduced Hamilton Depression Rating Scale scores, compared to a placebo group.
Some other physical responses to cold can also have an impact on mental health. When we become cold, our body’s response is to generate heat by shivering. This exertion can sap our energy levels if they were low to begin with. It can also affect circulation as blood is concentrated around your vital organs to keep them warm. This means that your extremities can become quite cold and it reduces the amount of oxygen circulating around the body. Not only can this increase the risk of joint pain for those with conditions like arthritis and fibromyalgia, but it can also contribute to low mood because of the reduction of oxygen circulating around your body.
The other side of this coin, of course, is the way warmth can counteract these symptoms. Staying warm prevents us from experiencing the negative impact of cold. Heat has been used as a natural aid to pain relief, to getting good quality sleep, and aiding circulation for many years. It offers comfort, reduces anxiety, prevents us from losing energy, and allows us to rest. The benefits of these things to mental health and well-being cannot be underestimated.
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