Researchers have suggested that repeated exposure to hurricanes, whether direct, indirect, or through the media, is associated with adverse psychological symptoms and may be associated with more psychological problems.
The findings of a unique study led by the University of California, Irvine, published in JAMA Network Open, are critical to understanding the psychological effects of recurrent natural disasters, especially in the context of the increasing threat of climate change. Rather than individuals becoming accustomed to repeated exposure to disasters, the results showed that responses to subsequent hurricanes over time negative†
“We show that people are unlikely to get used to or acclimate to climate-related natural disasters that will increase in frequency and severity in the coming years. Our results suggest a possible mental health crisis linked to those who experienced the storm directly or knew someone who so did those who spent several hours with the media about the hurricane,” said Dana Rose Garfin, UCI assistant adjunct professor of nursing and public health, and lead author of the report.
The first longitudinal study of its kind was conducted by Garfin and her colleagues, Roxane Cohen Silver, Distinguished Professor of Psychological Sciences, Medicine and Health; E. Alison Holman, professor of nursing; both from the UCI and the principal investigators of the study; Rebecca Thompson, Ph.D., UCI postdoctoral fellow in psychological sciences; and Gabrielle Wong-Parodi, Ph.D., assistant professor of Earth systems science, and center fellow at the Woods Institute for the Environment, Stanford University. The team assessed Florida residents in the hours before Hurricane Irma made landfall and re-examined the same individuals after Hurricane Irma and Michael to detect any mental health changes that might have occurred over time. Both were Category 5 storms in succession: Hurricane Irma in September 2017 and Hurricane Michael in October 2018.
The team found that repeated exposure to the threat of catastrophic hurricanes was linked to symptoms of post-traumatic stress, depression, anxiety and persistent fear and worry. These psychological symptoms, in turn, were associated with greater social and work-related disabilities, including difficulty getting along with others and performing work tasks and other daily activities.
“Some distress is normal after traumatic and extremely stressful events,” Garfin said. “Most people will recover over time and show resilience. However, as climate-related catastrophic hurricanes and other natural disasters such as wildfires and heat waves escalate, this natural healing process can be disrupted by repeated exposure to threats. In addition, we tracked people longitudinally over two hurricane seasons, and our data shows that as people experience multiple events over time, psychological symptoms accumulate and intensify, potentially foreshadowing a mental health crisis.”
Anxiety can be an adaptive response to disasters and can motivate people to take protective measures in preparation for the next event, team members said, recommending that future research examine how that response can be used in ways that don’t increase mental health problems. They also believe that the strong link between media engagement and distress suggests that social channels and mainstream media may play a critical role in effectively communicating the risk of increased anxiety with repeated threat exposure.
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