In places like Seattle, where winters are so long, wet, and dreary that you grow a fine sheen of moss across your body by springtime, you look forward to summer with all the hope and anticipation of new lovers. It's usually worth the wait: While most of the U.S. is so hot and humid that it feels like you're the thong in someone's crack from Easter to Halloween, Seattle is blissfully mild come summer, with blue skies and an average daily high of 75 degrees with low humidity. It's perfect.
And this shit starts.
It is fucking nasty out there. It looks like the inside of a three-sided tent on the last day of Burning Man. It feels like you smoked 14 Pall Malls and spent the night at a coal plant. It smells like the world is on fire... because it is. And we're not even in the middle of it! The bulk of the smoke currently stinging our eyes is from fires in Eastern Washington, the Cascades, and British Columbia. In Seattle, we're in no danger of losing our homes, at least at this point (although the risk would certainly go down if people would stop setting shit on fire). For those actually in the fire's path, wildfires may be a catastrophe, not just an eyesore. But even here, away from the actual burns, smoke can lead to serious health problems for the young, the elderly, and people with asthma or other respiratory diseases. And while there's been less research on the psychological effects of wildfire smoke than there has the physical effects, it seems safe to assume that most people don't exactly feel uplifted when the world outside looks like a scene out of Mad Max. As I see it, the only good thing about being constantly cloaked in wildfire smoke is that it's a great excuse to skip exercising for a few days. Otherwise, this shit just sucks.
I am not alone in feeling a sort of existential ennui on days like this. A study out of UW published last year looked at the connection between air pollution and mental health. Researchers surveyed 6,000 participants in the U.S. and found that—even when controlling for factors that can compound anxiety and depression, like excessive drinking, chronic health problems, and unemployment—when the concentration of fine particulate matter in the air increases, so does psychological distress, at least long-term.
The researchers in this particular study did not conclude why pollution leads to psychological distress and noted that further research is necessary, but in an email, researcher Anjum Hajat from UW's Department of Epidemiology said, "We don't know for sure, but we believe that the gases and small particles in air pollution can negatively impact the brain resulting in everything from behavioral changes to neuro-degeneration. This can happen in several possible ways, such as impacting several important stress hormones that regulate mood (for example dopamine and cortisol) or by causing inflammation and other negative biological processes in the brain."
Short-term, according to environmental psychology consultant Renee Lertzman (yes, that is a real thing, and, no, she is not the only one), pollution-depression is not just about scratchy throats and feeling sick.
"Any kind of environmental threat—whether air pollution, water contamination, toxins in our food—all are immensely stressful and make us feel deeply vulnerable," she says. "However, there is a whole additional level of stress that's related to causality. Pollution is about unintended consequences of our industrial practices, many of which are connected with our way of life. Cognitive dissonance, along with feeling helpless, is a big part of the story. Air pollution is one of those things that really gets at that basic core survival level, and when it feels threatened, we go into survival mode."
So, even when our survival isn't actually threatened (for most of us, this periodic smoke is a nuisance, not a threat), we still feel helpless. And for good reason: We are helpless. As individuals, we can adhere to burn bans, vote for progressive, pro-Earth politicians, become environmental activists and lobby for those in power to address climate change, wildfires, air quality, and other environmental issues, but we can't make it rain. Lertzman recommends supporting each other, talking about how it makes you feel, and getting involved in climate action and other environmental causes, but when the sky is this color, there's really nothing we can do but just wait it out. The world is on fire; this, unfortunately, is what that looks like. You'd be crazy not to be a little depressed.