When Your Crisis Is Actually Just That You’re Thirsty

The face of dehydration

A few days ago, I had a terrible fight with my partner of more than six years. I’m talking, BAD. The cause? We were thirsty.

No, seriously. That’s it. We were on a southwestern hiking trip and had gotten worrisomely dehydrated, thus reduced to a set of middle-aged preschoolers.

Fortunately, we figured out this cause-and-effect before things got further out of hand. But I should have known better from the start. Science foretold this catastrophe. And I knew the signs.

Very ‘grammable, but there’s a price!!!!!

At the end of 2019, Elemental put out a comprehensive package on hydration. As a person whose fluids consumption, at that time, consisted mostly of coffee, seltzer, kombucha, and beer, I read this series with great interest. I learned a lot from each story, but one installment stood out:

“Is This Existential Despair, or Do I Just Need to Drink Some Water?”

I’ll admit, I’m a sucker for a catchy headline. But more importantly, I’d never considered that there was an actual, science-backed link between dehydration and despondency.

Writer Madison Malone Kircher coined a term for this circumstantial mood snap: “thirstrage.” That’s the unholy matrimony of thirst and outrage, just waiting to ruin an otherwise lovely afternoon. And, from a biological standpoint, it is an embarrassingly predictable scenario.

To explain, Kircher cites Lisa Feldman Barrett, a psychologist at Northeastern University in Boston who specializes in human emotion:

“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.”

In sum, our bodies’ first and foremost job is to secure our survival. When our fundamental life-sustaining resources are compromised, even a little, we probably feel it on an emotional level—but without necessarily recognizing that mind-body connection.

As Barrett put it to Kircher, we’ve evolved to be mostly unaware of the inner workings of our body’s regulatory systems. It’s a whole drama, and we are so not privy. Instead, we read our physical needs as disparate cues: “Simple feelings of pleasure, of displeasure, feeling comfortable, feeling uncomfortable, feeling distress, feeling calm,” said Barrett.

The scene of the crime

So, back to me and my plus-one. Picture this: Two people who are constitutionally sensitive at the best of times (a Pisces and a Cancer, to boot) and who came of age on the shores of four out of five Great Lakes. Who now, on the edge of midlife, live within walking distance of the mid-Atlantic. Water people, and not too young.

Throw them into a desert during a heat wave.

Add a pinch of fitness hubris. Factor driving; tent sleeping; sub-optimal water carrying capacity.

Thirstrage.

Don’t be fooled by the serenity of the tent litterbox

The next morning, we woke up in our tent with the desert heat. “Did you sleep?” I asked.

“Yeah. Did you?”

“Uh huh.”

We blinked like newborns.

“I think… we’re really dehydrated,” my partner said. His sleep lines were etched into his face like a Klingon’s: a telltale sign that he was right. I’m sure I looked plump and supple and not remotely like a raisin. But nonetheless, I agreed.

We seized the remaining gallon water jugs from the trunk of our rental SUV, filled our bottles, and embraced. All was forgiven.

Then we chugged like our lives depended on it.

Currently: Writer, editor, author at-large | Recently: Senior Books Editor @ Forge