How smog affects mental health as air pollution increases

High levels of air pollution can mean breathing toxic air. When we think about the side effects of smog, we usually think of physical health problems such as respiratory and cardiovascular disease. However, it can also directly and indirectly affect our mental health and general psychological well-being. Read on to find out how smog affects mental health.

What is smog?

Smog is a combination of the words smoke and fog, referring to the opacity and color caused by the smoky-looking fog. Usually the blue sky looks brown or gray. It is actually an intense form of air pollution that reduces visibility.

Can smog affect mental health?

Poor air quality and high levels of air pollution don’t just lead to respiratory problems. You should also worry about your mental health. This is why:

1. Increases the risk of psychiatric disorders

Air pollution can increase the risk of psychiatric disorders such as anxiety, depression, bipolar disorder, schizophrenia and personality disorders, says consultant psychologist Ritika Aggarwal. A 2022 study published in The Lancet also found that depressive symptoms were most common among many participants aged 45 and over.

2. Cognitive decline in the elderly

Air pollution can increase the risk of Alzheimer’s disease, dementia and general cognitive decline in the elderly. Finer particles in air pollution can more easily penetrate the body’s defenses and travel from the lungs to the blood. Sometimes they travel via the axon of the olfactory nerve to the brain.

3. Increases aggressive behavior

A poor air quality index can make people more irritable and also show signs of aggressive behavior, the expert says.

4. Negative impact on social trust

A poor AQI can have a negative effect on social trust, meaning you are more likely to focus on the negative characteristics of others and find them less trustworthy.

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5. Stress

Air pollution can lead to unnecessary stress due to health or travel restrictions, affecting the way you think and function. Any health problems due to smog can also put you under mental stress.

How can we avoid the mental health effects of air pollution?

Our mental health affects our ability to think, feel, behave, build relationships and also affects our resilience. It does not mean that we will never have bad experiences or emotional problems, but rather it determines how we will overcome and recover from these problems.

Consider the AQI levels in your region. Image courtesy: Shutterstock

A few ways to stay mentally healthy during smog are as follows:

• Plan and prepare for the smog so that you create a sense of control over the situation, which in turn promotes psychological well-being.
• Be aware of the AQI levels in your area so you can protect yourself accordingly.
• Avoid outdoor activities unless necessary when smog is particularly heavy. Try to find ways to spend time productively indoors, suggests Aggarwal.
• Use a face mask when going out if the AQI is particularly poor.
• Participate in outdoor activities on sunny days when smog is lighter, or find a sunny spot in your home and sit there for a few minutes to boost your vitamin D levels.
• Improve indoor air quality to reduce your exposure to air pollution. You may want to consider looking into a good air filtration system or air purifier for your home.
• Wash your face regularly, especially after being outside.
• Make sure your smog-related and other physical health problems are addressed to improve your overall quality of life.
• Eat healthy and nutritious foods, especially foods that would strengthen your immune system. Include foods rich in vitamin C, omega-3 fatty acids and magnesium.
• Continue your exercise regimen indoors.
• Maintain self-care and hygiene practices
• Improve resilience, which means working on accepting situations you cannot change.
• Find hobbies and passions that improve your cognitive skills, such as puzzle solving, singing, dancing and reading, and pursue them.
• Try something relaxing. Practice yoga, breathing exercises, mindfulness or meditation.

You can also consider community involvement and try to create greener spaces to promote social interaction and combat pollution at your own level.

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