Updated: Sep 21, 2022
by Jessica Kay Lee
After three long years of living under pandemic uncertainties, I finally gathered up enough courage to venture out of Taiwan this summer with my family. The moment I left Formosa, I noticed an immediate shift in my mood, mindset, and overall wellbeing as I freely moved about the continents and enjoyed the world for the first time in years; no longer was I bounded by fear-mongering thoughts of COVID infection or guilt-tripped into masking up every venue I entered. While I still followed local health protocols, switching up my environment, experiencing different weather and cultures, reopened my eyes and heart to a bigger world outside of my Taipei bubble.
When I returned home to Taiwan late June, be it the post-vacation blues or the scorching summer humidity, I found myself and those around me dropping into a bit of a low – feeling snappier and more irritable than usual. As I reflected upon my mood shift during my daily contemplative practices, I started wondering:
Is there a link between climate, environment and wellbeing? If so, what can we do?
While I’ve loved living in and growing up in Taiwan for the past 26 years, till this very day I still grapple with the sauna-like summers. Under COVID conditions, masking protocols and reports of new virus strains only add to this “heat stress.” This summer, Taiwan (as well as the rest of the world including continental Europe, the UK, parts of the US and East Asia) experienced record-breaking heat waves between the months of June and July - the fifth consecutive warmest year to date. In mid-July alone, Taiwan temperatures rose past 40 degrees Celsius every day for a week, with 444 reported hospital visits in a day due to heat-related injuries.
From a physiological standpoint, a healthy human body maintains its internal temperature around 37 degrees Celsius. A change in our body temperature normally occurs when we are ill, or affected by environmental conditions. As the environment warms up, our body temperature also rises. To regulate, our body maintains an inner temperature balance by pumping more blood into the skin and increasing our sweat production. This way, our body can keep up with the rising external temperature. However, in extreme heat, the rate of heat gain is more than the body can lose in heat loss. Thus, a rise in body temperature, if not properly managed, can result in heat-related discomfort or – in the worst-case – serious illness such as heat stroke.
On top of the physical ailment caused by heat, weather, and climate changes can also indirectly affect our mood, temperament, and outlook on life. Multiple studies over the past decades have shown that people tend to be more prone to irritability and aggressiveness under excessive heat conditions. Another cross-cultural study even reported that cities in warmer regions tend to experience more violent crime than those in cooler regions with age, race, and poverty as controlled variables. Cold weather, on the other hand, may trigger seasonal affective disorder (SAD), a major depressive disorder that occurs with seasonal patterns, especially triggered when fall begins and sunlight diminishes. More extreme weathers such as tornadoes and hurricanes have also shown to contribute to increased anxiety and other psychological distress.
Besides our climate, our everyday environment also plays a key factor in our health and wellbeing, from the room we sleep in, the office we commute to, the city and state we reside in, to even the social venues and relationships we attend to during our precious off-time,
Within a space, aesthetic details can dictate our level of calmness or anxiety. Something as small as a cluttered desk can leave some (like me), feeling distracted. Others may feel overwhelmed by loud noises or large crowds, as those factors increases cortisol levels and stress. As a matter of fact, pollution has also been linked to mental health, particularly that of depression. Research has shown that households suffering from mold or higher pollutants may not only have high rates of asthma, but these conditions may also influence the family’s general state of wellbeing. Lighting, temperature, sound, smells, and the color palette within a room can also directly affect how comfortable, relaxed, or safe one feels inside the space. Harsh lighting and loud noises have been found to lead to higher anxiety and agitation, while darker, cold spaces may create more of a lethargic, unmotivated feeling.
Beyond the design and fixed conditions of a physical space, an environment also includes the people who roam within. The relationships and interactions with whom we surround ourselves with can directly influence the way we function every day. For example, what would it feel like to share a workspace with colleagues you distrust, or work in a corporate culture that’s hectic or rowdy, versus sharing a cozy space with people or pets you trust and love. That may be why you would rather coop up with your loved ones for one-month of quarantine if need be versus one hour with that especially standoffish acquaintance you were forced to mingle with at a social event.
Lastly, do take note of the content which we consume through our screens as tech devices infringe into every corner of our lives - social media, dating apps, food delivering apps, video gaming, and content streaming have taken up a large amount of “space” in our lives. Currently, research shows that the average time for scrolling on social media such as Facebook, Instagram, and YouTube now equates to around 145 minutes per day of every person’s life. That is over 2.5 hours per day of needless interaction with people we may not even know. Unfortunately, research has also found that the more time spent on social media, the greater the connection to anxiety symptoms, such as a clinically diagnosed anxiety disorder.
It’s helpful to take a little time to consider how our own environment, relationships, habits, visible or not, offline or in-person, can affect how we move and feel through this world.
What to do: Declutter
While these environmental and social factors may seem like common sense, without conscious awareness, we ourselves are often the instigator of our own emotional stress. Although we cannot tamper with Mother Earth’s erratic weather, we may be stuck in a contract or job we dislike, or we may find ourselves bound to a complicated relationship we cannot give up on just yet, what we do have control over in these situations is the management of our own internal state.
It all begins with the simple but freeing act of decluttering.
Before even stepping foot out the door to check out today’s weather, take a good look at the indoor environment you’ve created for yourself. With COVID as the new norm, we all spend so much more time working and studying from home. How does your immediate environment make you feel? While following the inspiring Marie Kondo method of throwing away what no longer belongs, and keeping what sparks joy, we can also allow ourselves to go beyond the decluttering of kitchen cabinets and office desks, and extend this clearing act into other corners of our lives, including that of the aforementioned online social attachments. I for one love going into my social media platforms and unfollowing accounts that no longer serve me at this time. As we unclutter from what no longer serves, we literally open up spaces for healthier content, people, activities, opportunities, and energy to enter.
Just like decluttering, practicing mindfulness and meditation is another accessible way for us to take conscious time for releasing unhealthy thoughts, while making space for a realistic and beneficial perception of our reality. When space is created in our heart, we can th
en add in visualization, gratitude, or loving kindness meditations to enhance the internal experience. Focusing our mind-body and spirit on the grateful parts of our lives produces immediate shifts in our perspective and moods. While it doesn’t take away the hot scorching weather, it does allow appreciation for the invention of air conditioning, the delicious mango shaved ice available only in the summer, and may perhaps even evoke a feeling of gratitude for the natural summer detoxification as we sweat away a COVID-filled year.
There is much in life we cannot control, but our internal state and outwards reactions are choices that do belong to us. If, however, you find yourself in need of further support beyond what family members and good friends can offer, you can always reach out to certified and licensed professionals from life coaches to psychotherapists.
*article first appeared in Centered On Taipei September 2022 Edition*