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The Clammy Science of the Cold Sweats

What is it about an unexpected email from your boss that makes you sweat buckets, even when it’s minus 80 with the office air con?

As we enter that magical time of year when your underwear glues itself to your butt with the determination of an affectionate barnacle, we’re taking a closer look at sweat. What is it? What does it want? From sweatshops and anxiety to the literal drippy stuff itself, this week is all about the perspiration. Now let’s get sweaty.

There you are, hard at work on a padded desk chair located in an office building that feels like a frozen tundra. The day has been unremarkable up until now, except for the ongoing battle about the office being too damn cold. Then you receive a stern Slack from your boss.

“Come to my office now.”

He never Slacks you like this, so you immediately start to panic. You frantically scan through the workday, searching for mistakes you might have made along the way. Nothing stands out, but you assume that trouble awaits in his office, since there’s no other logical conclusion. That’s when sweat begins to pour down your back, soaking your sweater despite the thermostat being set to Antarctica.

Ah, the cold sweats.

While sweating normally results from your body’s attempts to cool down in the heat, the cold sweats happen when we experience a sudden bout of stress, which in this case, has been motivated by the notion that your boss might fire you in less than 10 seconds, meaning your life is about to spiral downhill OH DEAR GOD.

Malcolm Brock, medical director at the John Hopkins Center for Sweat Disorders, explains that medical professionals are still unsure as to why exactly this happens, but many signs point to the fight-or-flight response: When faced with a stressful situation, we undergo several bodily changes, including an increased heart rate and more rapid breathing, both of which can cause your body temperature to increase, therefore inducing sweating.

More importantly, though, primary care physician Marc Leavey explains that the fight-or-flight response results in “increased adrenergic hormones,” which include norepinephrine and adrenaline. When the levels of these hormones increase, your nervous system ramps up, which can result in sweating no matter what your body temperature is.

As for why the cold sweats are, well, cold, there are several possible explanations. First, it could be argued that the sweat simply cools the skin, which feels especially chilly in this case, since your body temperature wasn’t necessarily high to begin with. More likely, though, the fight-or-flight response causes a shift in blood flow, resulting in a sudden decrease in body temperature, which can cause the chills. This is then exacerbated by hyperventilation, which impedes blood flow toward the brain and often results in that chilling tingly feeling.

While the occasional cold sweat in response to stress is normal, Brock mentions that experiencing sudden sweating like this often might also be the result of more serious medical problems, like hypoglycemia or thyroid issues that are causing hormonal imbalances. So consider seeing a doctor if you seem to break out in cold sweats on a regular basis.

As for preventing or stopping the cold sweats, addressing the root cause is your best bet, which normally means finding a way to chill out (or in those more serious cases, fixing the underlying medical problem). In this case, that means accepting the reality that your boss might be pissed and moving on.

On second thought, uh, maybe throw on a headband before stepping into his office.