The Elemental Guide to Water

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.

LLet 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 achieve homeostasis. In human speak, she told me just to think of my brain as my body’s budget keeper.

“Instead of budgeting money, it’s budgeting glucose and salt and water and other resources. It’s trying to move resources around to get them to the tissues that need them,” she said. “So just like in a big company that has offices all over the world, they would have one main financial office making decisions about getting resources to where they need to be before they need them. That’s what your brain does.”

It’s a good thing we aren’t able to differentiate among despair because we’re hungry versus despair because we’re tired versus despair because of any other possible reason. “If you were, you know, you’d never pay attention to anything outside your own skin ever again,” Barrett said. “Right now as we’re talking, you’re not aware of a whole drama going on inside your body, but that’s, in fact, what’s happening. Instead, what evolution has given us is a kind of a workaround: simple feelings of pleasure, of displeasure, feeling comfortable, feeling uncomfortable, feeling distress, feeling calm.”

So instead of feeling a zillion different things every second of every day, our body creates a sort of umbrella for them all. Barret also told me the official term for these: affects. Outside a lab, a person would just call these their mood. Moods are a way to understand that something needs fixing — at least if your mood is negative — but they don’t fully tell you what that thing is.

“If vision is like high-definition TV, then affect is like a 1950s TV set: black and white, fuzzy perception … in a rainstorm. You kind of vaguely know everything is fine or if there’s a problem,” Barrett said. So in my case, she noted, dehydration comes in the form of feeling tired or grumpy rather than feeling outright thirsty. (There is also data to support a link between dehydration and moodiness in women in particular. Even being a little dehydrated — not even stranded-on-a-desert-island-with-nothing-potable dehydrated — can cause women to feel fatigued or get headaches. This could also be playing into my 4 p.m. feelings.)

“Whenever you’re feeling like the proverbial world is ending at 4:30 in the afternoon, the thing to do is have a glass of water.”

Barrett told me about a time she mixed up emotional and physical feelings. She was out on a first date with somebody she was just lukewarm on, but she had this weird feeling in her stomach. “I was flushed, and I just had that feeling you get when you meet someone that you’re really attracted to and it’s really discombobulating. It felt like I was floating. I was having trouble concentrating,” she explained. She made plans for another date. Later, after she got home, she realized she had the flu; her so-called butterflies were actually an illness. “I could have saved myself nine months of excruciating hell if I had realized that, in fact, I wasn’t actually a good match for this person,” she said.

The vagueness of her early flu symptoms, Barrett said, is akin to the manifestation of my dehydration. “You’re just making a guess based on the situation,” she told me. Lack of sleep might lead you to believe you’re hungry. You might think you need a snack, but what you really need is a nap. For me, I might think I need to strangle the next coworker who politely asks me a question, but really I just need some water. (Of course, there are also times where you do really feel actively thirsty — that’s your body telling you it’s way too dehydrated. That’s not what’s happening to me at work.)

“Your brain doesn’t work reactively, it works predictively,” Barrett said when I asked about ways to better handle my thirstrage. “Hydration is a nice example. If you are thirsty, and you drink a full glass of water, you immediately feel like your thirst is quenched. It takes like 20 minutes for the water to actually make its way into your bloodstream, but because you’re drinking, your brain is predicting that you aren’t going to feel thirsty. And so you don’t, even though you’re not yet hydrated.”

Which is a kind way of saying maybe I should just keep a Post-it note with a hydration reminder on my computer monitor. “Whenever you’re feeling like the proverbial world is ending at 4:30 in the afternoon, the thing to do is have a glass of water,” Barrett said.

I drank another glass after we hung up, just in case.

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.

Illustrations by Shuhua Xiong

Madison Malone Kircher is a staff writer at New York Magazine. She lives in Brooklyn. Twitter: @4evrmalone

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