Is This Existential Despair, or Do I Just Need to Drink Some Water?
When being parched feels like the end of the world
This story is part of The Elemental Guide to Water, a five-part special report on the health benefits of water, the science behind seltzer, the truth about fancy H2O, the safety of tap water, and how much water you really need to drink.
Let me set the scene for you. It’s 4 in the afternoon on a Tuesday — any Tuesday. I’ve been working since 8 in the morning. Nothing particularly bad has happened. It’s a typical day, full of typical tasks. But then, it happens: This creeping sensation that everything is awful. My writing is terrible, and my fingers are full of lead, and oh my god, I hate everyone!
Eventually, my spiraling emotions lead me to the office kitchen, where I’ll grab a snack from the vending machine or, more importantly, where I’ll spy the watercooler and think hmm, when was the last time I had a drink of water? When I can’t come up with the answer, I’ll fill up my bottle and start sipping. And then, would you believe, I almost always feel a little bit better? Hydration! Who knew?
Let’s call it “thirstrage” — a very official portmanteau of “thirst” and “outrage” I definitely didn’t just make up. I almost always feel silly in these moments. Foolish that I can’t, as an adult woman, put together the math that office despondency plus water equals a better mood. Lisa Feldman Barrett, a psychologist at Northeastern University in Boston who specializes in human emotion, made me feel a little bit better when she explained our brains aren’t wired to do that. I asked why I conflate my thirst with negative feelings, and she quickly explained that’s not what’s happening. It’s not that I’m conflating the two — they’re the same feeling.
“Your brain evolved to control your body. It didn’t evolve for you to see feel or see or think. Every moment of your life, you’re mostly unaware of what it’s doing … which is managing the resources in your body,” Barrett told me in a phone call one afternoon. (I drank a big glass of water in advance of our call.) It’s a process known as allostasis, which is how the body reacts to environmental and psychological stressors to…