Air pollution: How smog affects mental health

The Air Quality Index has touched the ‘severe’ or very poor levels in many cities. So, let's find out how smog can affect your mental health.
Side effects of smog on mental health
Know the side effects of smog on mental health. Image courtesy: Adobe Stock
Natalia Ningthoujam Published: 10 Nov 2023, 06:30 pm IST
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High levels of air pollution can mean inhaling toxic air. When we think about the side effects of smog, we usually think of physical health concerns 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 colour caused by the smoky looking fog. It usually makes the blue sky look brown or grey. It is basically an intense type 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 breathing issues. You should be concerned about your mental health too. Here’s why:

1. Increases risk of psychiatric disorders

Air pollution may 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 showed that depressive symptoms were the most frequent among many participants aged 45 years and older.

2. Cognitive decline among the elderly

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

3. Increase aggressive behaviour

Poor air quality index may make people more irritable and they may show signs of aggressive behaviour too, says the expert.

4. Negative impact on social trust

Poor AQI may negatively impact social trust, which means that you will more likely focus on the negative characteristics of others and find them less trustworthy.

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 arising out of smog may also put you under mental stress.

How to avoid mental health effects of air pollution?

Our mental health influences our ability to think, feel, behave, build relationships, and also impacts our resilience. It does not mean we are never going to have bad experiences or emotional issues, but rather it decides how we are going to overcome and recover from those issues.

Woman with a mask on
Be aware of the AQI levels in your area. Image courtesy: Shutterstock

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

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• Plan and prepare yourself for the smog so as to 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 that you can protect yourself accordingly.
• Avoid outdoor activities unless necessary when the smog is particularly bad. Try finding ways to spend time productively indoors, suggests Aggarwal.
• Use a face mask while going out if the AQI is particularly bad.
• Participate in outdoor activities on sunny days when the smog is less or find a sunny spot in your homes and sit there for a few minutes to increase your vitamin D levels.
• Improve the indoor air quality to reduce your exposure to air pollution. You can consider looking into a good home air filtration system or purifier.
• Wash your face regularly, especially after being outside.
• Get your smog-related and other physical health concerns addressed so as to improve your general quality of life.
• Eat healthy and nutritious foods, especially those that would boost your immune system. Add foods that are rich in vitamin C, omega-3 fatty acids, and magnesium.
• Continue your exercise regime indoors.
• Maintain self-care and hygiene practices
• Enhance resilience, which means work on accepting the situations that you cannot change.
• Find and continue with hobbies and passions that enhance your cognitive skills such as solving puzzles, singing, dancing and reading.
• 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 as well as combat pollution at your own level.

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About the Author

Natalia Ningthoujam has written on various subjects - from music to films and fashion to lifestyle - as a journalist in her career that started in 2010. After getting stories from the crime scene, police headquarters, and conducting interviews with celebrities, she is now writing on health and wellness which has become her focus area. ...Read More

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