A study suggests that experiencing and even hearing about repeated catastrophes can lead to PTSD, depression, and anxiety. In this Verywell Mind article, Mindpath Health’s Elisabeth Netherton, MD, talks about coping with the effects of climate change.

Repeated Exposure to Hurricanes Can Be Detrimental to Mental Health

According to a recent study, repeated exposure to hurricanes can have negative effects on mental health. This appears to be the case not only for direct exposure to hurricanes but for indirect and media-based exposure too—for example, a friend getting injured because of a hurricane or hearing a lot about hurricanes on the news.

Researchers working on the study, led by the University of California, found that repeated exposure to the threat of hurricanes is linked to symptoms of post-traumatic stress, depression, anxiety, fear, and worry. They assessed Florida residents before Hurricane Irma hit in September of 2017 and then again after Hurricane Michael hit in October.

Hurricanes and mental health

Distress or worry is to be expected after an event like a hurricane, particularly when there are two catastrophic hurricanes in fairly quick succession, like Irma and Michael. However, it would normally be expected that mental health would get back to its previous level over time.

Dana Rose Garfin, PhD, explained, “as climate-related catastrophic hurricanes and other natural disasters such as wildfires and heat waves escalate, this natural healing process may be disrupted by repeated threat exposure.”

Researchers found that with repeated exposure, psychological symptoms were likely to build up and get more serious. This is something that Garfin suggested may prompt a mental health crisis.

This study was the first longitudinal study to assess participants before and after category 5 hurricanes. While more studies of this nature would be beneficial, findings were similar to those from studies conducted in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina in 2005.

Rising climate change anxiety

Also resulting from repeated exposure to hurricanes can be increased global distress and worry about future events. Climate change has a real impact on the mental health of many, and there’s evidence that it may also be making hurricanes stronger and more dangerous.

It’s one of many things that can impact our mental health, and there’s a fear that even after one hurricane has come and gone, there could be another in the near future.

Or, even if it’s not going to affect us directly, we might have relatives in an area susceptible to hurricanes, or we might just be worried about climate change more generally—and it appears that there might be a gender gap here.

Elisabeth Netherton, MD, a psychiatrist and regional medical director for Mindpath Health, explains, “Climate change is contributing to increased frequency of a host of natural disasters—we watch these play out on the news or affect our own homes and communities. People experience a host of terrifying consequences of these events—loss of their homes and possessions, threats to the lives and safety of ourselves and our loved ones.

“It is important to note that because women have a much higher risk of developing depression, anxiety, and PTSD across their lifetimes, they are likely to carry a disproportionate mental health burden of these disasters. On average, women make less than men do and carry statistically lower household wealth, which means that women-led households are particularly vulnerable to struggling to meet basic needs following these disasters.”

What you can do

Natural disasters and extreme weather conditions like hurricanes will always exist — we can’t avoid them entirely. But there are things that people can do should they feel their mental health, or that of a friend or relative, has been affected by them.

“If people notice that their mental health is being affected by hurricanes, I think it is critical that they seek professional support through mental health treatment, such as therapy and additional sources of community support. Studies of families in the wake of prior natural disasters support the importance of community support in resilience to these forms of trauma,” says Netherton.

Of course, it can be wise to take precautions before the event if you know that there’s a hurricane coming. We can’t stop hurricanes, but preparing for them beforehand and seeking help afterward if you think you need it can help your mental well-being.

Read the full Verywell Mind article with sources.

Elisabeth Netherton, M.D.

Houston, TX

Dr. Elisabeth Netherton focuses on women’s mental health and personality disorders across the lifespan. Dr. Netherton understands the challenges women face and has experience in prescribing women during pregnancy and postpartum. She believes it is incredibly meaningful to see mothers feel better because this positively impacts them and their children. Dr. Netherton wants her patients to feel empowered and consider ... Read Full Bio »

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