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Trauma of extreme weather events affects our brains

Extreme weather events induce psychological trauma which can have long-term impact on survivors' cognitive functioning according to a new study.

The study conducted by University of California associate professor of psychiatry Jyoti Mishra and her team and published in January 2023 revealed that people directly or indirectly exposed to a wildfire dealt with distractions less accurately than the control group.

The study also found that mindfulness, regular physical activity and maintaining strong social connections can help with the trauma of such events.

Dr. Mishra said climate change is increasingly affecting people around the world, including through extreme heat, storm damage and life-threatening events like wildfires.

She said, in her previous research studies her team showed that in the aftermath of the 2018 fire that destroyed the town of Paradise in California, chronic symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder, anxiety and depression were highly prevalent in the affected communities more than six months after the disaster.

The present study found a graded effect - people whose homes or families were directly affected by fire showed greater mental health harm than those where who were indirectly affected, meaning people who witnessed the event in their community but did not have a personal loss.

The new study was conducted to understand whether the symptoms of climate change-related trauma translate to changes in cognitive functioning – the mental processes involved in memory, learning, thinking and reasoning.

The research found that subjects’ cognitive functioning across a range of abilities, including attention; response inhibition – the ability to not respond impulsively; working memory – the ability to maintain information in mind for short periods of time; and interference processing – the ability to ignore distractions does get impacted.

The study included three groups of individuals: people who were directly exposed to the fire, people who were indirectly exposed, and a control group with no exposure. The groups were well matched for age and gender.

Dr. Mishra said with climate change fuelling more disasters, it is important to understand its impacts on human health, including mental health. Resilient mental health is what allows us to recover from traumatic experiences. How humans experience and mentally deal with climate catastrophes sets the stage for our future lives.



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