Repeated exposure to hurricanes may be associated with greater mental health problems

Repeated exposure to hurricanes, direct, indirect, or media-based, is linked to adverse psychological symptoms and may be associated with major mental health problems, according to a one-of-a-kind study conducted by the University of California, Irvine researchers.

Results, published online today in Open JAMA network, are critical to understanding the psychological impacts of recurring natural disasters, particularly in the context of the growing threat of climate change. Instead of getting used to repeated exposure to disasters, the results showed that responses to successive hurricanes become more negative over time.

We show that people are unlikely to get used or accustomed to climate-related natural disasters that will increase in frequency and severity in the years to come. Our findings suggest a potential mental health crisis associated with those who directly experienced the storm or knew someone who did, as well as those who spent several hours in contact with the media about the hurricane. “

Dana Rose Garfin, UCI Assistant Adjunct Professor of Nursing and Public Health and first author of the report

The first longitudinal study of its kind was conducted by Garfin and his colleagues, Roxane Cohen Silver, a distinguished professor of psychological sciences, medicine and health; E. Alison Holman, professor of nursing; both the UCI and the principal research investigators; Rebecca Thompson, Ph.D., UCI postdoctoral scholar in psychological sciences; and Gabrielle Wong-Parodi, Ph.D., assistant professor of earth system sciences and researcher at the Woods Institute for the Environment, Stanford University. The team assessed Florida residents in the hours leading up to Hurricane Irma’s landing and re-examined those same individuals after Hurricanes Irma and Michael to detect any mental health changes that may have occurred over time. Both were Category 5 storms that occurred 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 ongoing fear and worry. In turn, these psychological symptoms were associated with greater social and occupational impairment, including difficulty interacting with others and performing work tasks and other daily activities.

“Some discomfort is normal after traumatic and extremely stressful events,” Garfin said. “Most people will recover and show resilience over time. However, with the escalation of catastrophic climate-related hurricanes and other natural disasters such as fires and heat waves, this natural healing process could be disrupted by repeated exposure to In addition, we’ve tracked people longitudinally two hurricane seasons, and our data shows that as people experience multiple events over time, psychological symptoms build up and intensify, potentially portending a mental health crisis. “

Anxiety can be an adaptive response to disasters and can motivate people to take protective action in preparation for the next event, team members said, and recommend that future research explore how to harness this reaction in ways that do not increase the mental health disorders. They also believe that the strong link between media engagement and discomfort suggests that social channels and mainstream media outlets can play a critical role in effectively communicating the risk of increased discomfort with repeated exposure to threats.


University of California – Irvine

Journal reference:

Garfin, DR, et al. (2022) Association between repeated hurricane exposure and mental health in a representative sample of Florida residents. Open JAMA network.

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