August 2, 2023  — Categorized in:

Coping with Emotional Distress During an Extreme Heatwave

By Christian Burgess, LMSW, Director, Disaster Distress Helpline, Vibrant Emotional Health

The Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) classifies an extreme heatwave as “a period of high heat and humidity with temperatures above 90 degrees for at least two to three days.” Extreme heatwaves are among the most threatening weather events, with hundreds of people dying each year in the U.S. due to direct, prolonged exposure to excessively high temperatures. In addition, millions of people and animals are at risk for heat-related illnesses during heat waves. For these reasons, just like with any disaster, the risk for emotional distress and other mental health concerns is also present during extreme heat waves.

Symptoms of emotional distress during heatwaves can include: 

  • Heightened, prolonged feelings of anxiety and/or isolation
  • Trouble sleeping
  • Difficulty concentrating and completing necessary tasks at home, school, and work
  • Noticeable changes in mood; irritability
  • Substance misuse or abuse, including alcohol, tobacco, and prescription medications

It is important that everyone is aware of how extreme heat affects our individual and collective mental health, including behavioral health providers and staff/volunteers working in disaster preparedness, response, and recovery. According to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, “heat waves are occurring more often than they used to in major cities across the United States.” Their frequency has increased steadily, from an average of two heat waves per year during the 1960s to six per year during the 2010s and 2020s.”

With climate change increasing the frequency of severe weather, on top of the stressors of everyday life, here are five tips that you and loved ones can take to cope, specifically during an extreme heatwave:

1 | Adapt your usual ways of coping 

During an extreme heatwave, you may be unable to practice your usual ways of coping with stress. For example, if you usually go for walks or run to cope during a heatwave, being outside for long periods and engaging in physical exertion can pose a serious risk to your health. If you have to adapt your coping during a heatwave, look at it as an opportunity to try something different, which can be beneficial to your mental health, anyway!

  • Bonus Tip: Controlled breathing and guided meditation can be especially useful forms of coping during a heatwave, especially if you start to feel overwhelmed with intense feelings of worry for yourself, loved ones, etc. Vibrant’s Safe Space offers tools to support you in an emotionally safe environment that can help you feel more grounded and in the present.

2 | Connect with local resources

Local organizations and institutions will offer relief services and other forms of support that can help you cope both physically and mentally during an extreme heatwave. Your local 211 Information and Referral provider (or 311 city services hotlines if available in your area) is a good resource to save on your phone or bookmark on your computer for easy access to find out about local cooling centers, home energy assistance, resources for people with special health needs, information about care for pets, etc.  

3 | Check on neighbors, loved ones & your community

People with medical disabilities or other access and functional needs, especially those who live alone, are at significantly higher risk of physical distress during a prolonged extreme heatwave. A simple text, call, or knock on a neighbor’s door can go a long way in helping someone at risk feel cared for and less alone. Looking after others can help you cope with distress during a heatwave, too, because it will help you channel any feelings of anxiety or worry into a beneficial and rewarding act of kindness.

  • Bonus Tip: Take your acts of kindness even further by volunteering! During extreme heatwaves, as with any disaster or emergency that affects your community, organizations and the people/pets they serve will benefit from your time and generosity. Cooling centers need to be staffed, meals distributed, animals rescued, etc., or you could even volunteer year-round community education on extreme heat preparedness (see Tip 4). There are also advocacy organizations addressing climate change you can connect and volunteer with to channel concerns about the health of our planet and its people into action.
  • Find volunteer opportunities via United Way, Just Serve, or call your local 211/311. Volunteers in disaster emotional care may also be needed during extreme heatwaves. Check out my blog for more on this topic.

4 | Follow emergency & public health safety guidelines 

Practicing preparedness is a form of coping. It can help us and our loved ones feel calmer and more in control during a crisis or emergency, including extreme heatwaves. As soon as a forecast for extreme heat is issued, start getting ready by learning about what you can do to stay safe. Involve kids and anyone in the home with access and functional needs – and don’t forget about pets!, the American Red Cross, and the Centers for Disease Control have comprehensive, easy-to-follow tips, including in multiple languages.

  • Bonus Tip: These programs/agencies may also have apps you can download specific to extreme heat so that you have resources during extreme heat waves at your fingertips. Also, find your city, county, and state Emergency Management Departments on social media (making sure you’re connecting with their official accounts) and follow them for additional, essential information in real-time about extreme heatwaves affecting your area.

5 | Recognize when you may need additional support 

Even if you try all of these coping tips during an extreme heatwave, you may find that your symptoms of distress are persistent, or you might feel that other, potentially serious behavioral health concerns are being activated, such as intense feelings of anxiety, depression (including thoughts of suicide or harming yourself and/or others), and/or substance abuse or misuse. Talk to someone you trust about these thoughts and feelings, including a healthcare provider, or call or text the national Disaster Distress Helpline anytime, day or night, 24/7/365 at 1-800-985-5990. Trained DDH crisis counselors will listen to what’s on your mind for as long as you need and without judgment.

You are not alone during any disaster or emergency, including extreme heatwaves. 


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