Climate change, eco-anxiety and environmental trauma are real
Climate change and natural disasters can profoundly affect our mental health.
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It was early March 2018. My husband was checking the weather app on his phone when he looked up worried and said we were due to have two back-to-back snowstorms in the next few days.
March seemed like a hot enough month to have a bad storm in New York City, so I shrugged. “How bad could it be?” ”
Well it turned out to be pretty bad.
The first storm knocked down two trees surrounding our house and at either end of our road, trapping us with no way out.
It also cut our power across the county, leaving some 25,000 people in freezing temperatures.
Even under bundles of blankets, neither my husband nor I nor our dog could stop shaking. Without heat, our pipes also froze, cutting off the water in our house.
The power company was unable to enter the neighborhood to fix broken power lines before the next storm.
We weren’t as prepared as our neighbors, we had just moved into our rural home a few months ago. During 9 days of blackout, we realized how rookies we were.
We hadn’t refueled our car before, so we barely had enough to get to the only open gas station, three towns away.
All of the hotels were booked by the time we started to search. We hadn’t even stocked up on food.
The truth is, for many years my husband and I didn’t feel like we really had to pay attention to the weather besides checking the temperatures in the morning to decide whether we should take a sweater or an umbrella.
We were luckier than the others. The storm killed people in the region.
These storms also changed my whole sense of security about the natural environment. Since then, every violent weather event that appears on our forecast has filled me with incredible anxiety and fear.
When Hurricane Ida hit New Orleans this year, it caused massive damage and flooding, leaving hundreds of thousands of people without power.
Then the storm, although much weaker, inundated large parts of the northeast, causing more flooding and killing dozens of people on the roads and in their basement apartments.
Global warming is expected to increase the intensity and frequency of extreme weather events like these, according to the Center for Climate and Energy Solutions.
Between 2030 and 2050, up to 250,000 people could die each year from malnutrition, disease, diarrhea and heat stress linked to climate change.
The American Public Health Association reports that up to 25 to 50% of people exposed to an extreme weather disaster are at risk of adverse mental health effects.
This includes an increase in distress responses, such as:
While these reactions may fade away for some people, depending on the person and how they handle stress, this is not always the case.
After Hurricane Katrina in 2005, 49% of survivors developed an anxiety or mood disorder, while one in six people developed PTSD.
People who already have pre-existing mental health issues are more likely to feel the mental health effects, but they can still affect anyone, especially in the face of repeated disasters, like the frequent wildfires that strike people. seasonally in the western United States.
In fact, Carla Marie Manly, a clinical psychologist who has worked with clients after 3 years of wildfire devastation, states that “the mere threat of a natural disaster can certainly have an impact on mental health. disaster materializes or not. The simple threat can trigger intense anxiety, stress, and fear. “
“For example, due to years of forest fire disasters accompanied by high winds, many of my clients notice that they suffer from severe anxiety when the winds are at a higher level – even the sound of wind chimes is difficult for some. ,” she says.
But just like how slow the impacts of climate change on the planet are to manifest on a daily basis (although the trends become very evident over time), the impacts on mental health are also more apparent over time.
In 2017, an article from the Association for Psychological Science suggests that there may be a link between extreme heat and increased irritability, aggression, or violence.
A 2018 study of people in the United States and Denmark also found a correlation between exposure to poor air quality and mental health problems, such as anxiety, schizophrenia, and medical disorders. personality.
In 2017, the American Psychological Association released a report detailing the ways in which climate change is causing trauma, even in subtle ways. They coined the term “eco-anxiety” to describe the growing chronic fear of environmental disaster.
Because just like the pandemic, climate change and environmental devastation is causing an existential threat that people feel powerless to fight on their own.
In fact, a
There are a few things you can do to try and cope with the mental health impacts of environmental devastation.
Acknowledge your feelings
It is normal to be anxious or afraid of severe weather events or the long term health of the planet. It is also okay to talk about these feelings, whether with friends, family, or a mental health expert.
If you are a parent, you might want to let your kids know that they can also talk about their feelings and ask you questions.
If you don’t know how to talk about climate change with your kids, Yale Climate Connections has some helpful resources to help guide you.
Focus on personal care
You might find it helpful to “take the time to breathe, meditate, and focus,” says Manly.
If you reduce your general stress and take care of your mental health on a daily basis, you may find that this also decreases your worry about climate change and weather.
You may also want to know your triggers to help you regulate the time you spend with them.
For example, says Manly, “since negative images tend to be more disruptive and upsetting than written news or the radio, make an effort to read the newspaper or listen to a radio show in the morning.” This way you can stay informed without having so many images of devastation in your head.
Try to stay informed and prepared
You probably shouldn’t ignore severe weather warnings like I did when my husband announced storms were on their way.
Of course, that doesn’t mean you have to be a storm chaser or a “prepper” (like a
Coming up with a plan and purchasing what you need to keep yourself and your family safe can feel very empowering (and practical, of course).
You may find it useful to take the time to research your area and see what natural weather threats you are exposed to, whether it is floods, extreme heat, snowstorms, tornadoes, hurricanes, earthquakes or the like.
Then you can properly prepare your home and car by stocking up on safety supplies.
It is important to note that there are also geographic and racial inequalities in disaster preparedness, both at government and community level. You can learn more here.
Do what you can to help
If you’ve been through a violent weather event and found that it has affected your mental health, or if you’ve just felt an impact on your mental health because of all the news about environmental disasters, you are not alone.
There are things we can do to empower ourselves and be better prepared. While these things might not completely prevent mental health effects, they might help more than you think.
Just like taking steps to take care of yourself and protect your family, you may find it helpful to take small steps to help the planet.
Manly suggests that “taking local action of some sort – whether it’s driving less, carpooling, reducing litter, or turning off the air conditioning – is an important action a person can take.” [and] if each individual takes modest steps to save the planet, the combined efforts will create lasting change. “
There is also evidence that community action helps build morale, which helps reduce the frequency of mental health disorders after severe weather events, according to a study in Florida.
“Complaining and worrying don’t do anything to change the future,” says Manly, “but action reminds the body, mind and spirit that we matter and our planet matters.”
Simone M. Scully is a journalist who writes on health, science, parenting and the environment. Outside of work, she typically camps or hikes in a national park with her husband, toddler, and rescue beagle. Find out more about his work at simonescully.com.