Climate change and natural weather 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, concerned, and said that we’re supposed to get two back-to-back snowstorms in the coming days.
March seemed like a pretty warm month to get a bad storm in New York, so I shrugged. “How bad could it be?”
Well, it turned out, pretty bad.
The first storm knocked down two trees surrounding our house and on either end of our road, trapping us with no way out.
It also knocked out our power in the entire county, leaving some 25,000 people in freezing temperatures.
Even under bundles of blankets, neither my husband, myself, nor our dog could stop shivering. With no heat, our pipes froze too, cutting water off to our home.
The electricity company wasn’t able to enter the neighborhood to make repairs to downed power lines before the next storm hit.
We weren’t as prepared as our neighbors, having just moved into our rural home a few months prior. During 9 days of outage, we realized just what rookies we were.
We hadn’t previously gassed our car up, so we barely had enough to drive to the only gas station that was open — three towns away.
All the hotels were booked by the time we started looking. 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 if we needed to grab a sweater or an umbrella.
We were luckier than others. The storm did cause deaths in the area.
Those storms also changed my entire sense of safety when it came to the natural environment. Ever since, each severe weather event that pops up on our forecast fills me with incredible anxiety and fear.
When Hurricane Ida hit New Orleans this year, it caused enormous amounts of damage and flooding, leaving hundreds of thousands without power.
Then the storm, though much weaker, drenched large portions of the Northeast, causing more flooding and killing dozens on roads and in their basement apartments.
According to the Center for Climate and Energy Solutions, a warming world is expected to lead to an increase in the intensity and frequency of extreme weather events like these.
Between 2030 and 2050, as many as 250,000 people might die each year from climate change-related malnutrition, disease, diarrhea, and heat stress.
The American Public Health Association reports that as many as 25–50% of people exposed to an extreme weather disaster are at risk of an adverse mental health effect.
This includes a rise in distress responses, like:
While these reactions can fade for some people — depending on the individual and how they cope with stress — that’s not always the case.
People who already have preexisting mental health conditions are more likely to feel the mental health effects — but they can still affect anyone, especially in the face of repeated disasters, like frequent wildfires that hit seasonally in the western parts of the United States.
In fact, Carla Marie Manly, a clinical psychologist who has worked with clients after 3 years of wildfire devastation, says “the mere threat of a natural disaster can certainly impact mental health, regardless of whether or not the disaster materializes. The mere threat can trigger intense anxiety, stress, and fear.”
“For example, as a result of facing several years of wildfire disasters that come with 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 much like how climate change’s impacts on the planet are slow to become apparent on a day-to-day basis (even as trends become very obvious over time) the impacts on mental health are also more apparent over time.
In 2017, an article from the Association for Psychological Science suggests there might be a connection between extreme heat and a rise in irritability, aggressiveness, or violence.
A 2018 study of people in the United States and Denmark also found a correlation between exposure to bad air quality and mental health conditions, such as anxiety, schizophrenia, and personality disorders.
In 2017, the American Psychological Association released a report detailing the ways climate change is a source of trauma, even in subtle ways. They coined the term “eco-anxiety” to describe the growing chronic fear of environmental doom.
Because just like the pandemic, climate change and environmental devastation cause an existential threat that people feel powerless to combat on their own.
In fact, a
There are a few things you can do to try to cope with the mental health impacts of environmental devastation.
Acknowledge your feelings
It’s OK to be anxious or afraid about severe weather events or the long-term health of the planet. It’s also OK to talk about these feelings — whether that’s with friends, family, or a mental health expert.
If you’re a parent, you might want to let your kids know it’s also OK for them to talk about their feelings and ask you questions.
If you’re not sure how to talk about climate change with your kids, Yale Climate Connections has some helpful resources to guide you.
You might find it helpful to “take time to breathe, meditate, and center yourself,” says Manly.
If you lower your overall stress and take care of your mental health on a daily basis, you might see that it lowers your worry about climate change and the weather, too.
You may also want to learn your triggers to help regulate how much time you engage with them.
For example, Manly says, “as negative images tend to be more disruptive and upsetting than written news or radio, strive to read the newspaper or listen to a morning radio show.” That way, you can stay informed without having images of devastation stick in your head as much.
Try to stay informed and prepared
You probably shouldn’t ignore severe weather warnings the way I did when my husband shared the news that storms were on the way.
Of course, this doesn’t mean you have to be a storm chaser, or “prepper” (as one
Making a plan and buying what you need to keep yourself and your family safe can feel very empowering (and practical, of course).
You might find it helpful to take the time to research your area and see what the natural weather threats you’re at risk for, whether that’s flooding, extreme heat, snowstorms, tornadoes, hurricanes, earthquakes, or something else.
Then, you could prep your home and your car appropriately by stocking up on safety supplies.
It’s important to note that there are geographic and racial inequities in disaster preparedness too, on both a government and community level. You can learn more here.
Do what you can to help
If you’ve lived through a severe weather event and found that it affected your mental health, or if you’ve simply felt an impact on your mental health from all the news about environmental disasters, you aren’t alone.
There are things we can do to empower ourselves and better prepare. While those things might not prevent mental health impacts altogether, they could help more than you think.
Much like taking steps to self-care and protect your family, you might find it helpful to take small actions toward helping the planet.
Manly suggests “taking local action of some sort — whether driving less, joining a carpool, reducing waste, or turning off the AC — is an important action that a person can take [and] if each individual takes modest steps to save the planet, the combined efforts will create lasting change.”
There’s also some evidence, according to a study from Florida, that community action helps build morale, which helps lessen the frequency of mental health distress after severe weather events.
“Complaining and worrying do nothing to change the future,” Manly says, “but action reminds the body, mind, and spirit that we matter and that our planet matters.”
Simone M. Scully is a journalist who writes about health, science, parenting, and the environment. Outside of work, she’s usually camping or hiking in a national park with her husband, toddler, and rescue beagle. Find out more about her work at simonescully.com.