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Extreme weather making us anxious

A new study has found a clear link between weather events and our mental health

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Workers try to clear a flood on the Citywest slip road off the M7 motorway. Weather events are impacting more of us, and more often. Picture by Damien Eagers

Workers try to clear a flood on the Citywest slip road off the M7 motorway. Weather events are impacting more of us, and more often. Picture by Damien Eagers

Workers try to clear a flood on the Citywest slip road off the M7 motorway. Weather events are impacting more of us, and more often. Picture by Damien Eagers

Irish environmental scientists have found a clear link between extreme weather events in here and the impact on people’s mental health.

Jean O’Dwyer, deputy head of environmental science at UCC, said their study is the first of its kind in this country.

“We have carried out a national survey asking people if they had been exposed to any extreme weather event — including flooding, drought or snowfall, the kind that we would have seen with the ‘Beast from the East’ and the findings are very surprising,” she said.

“We haven’t published it yet, it is due out in January, but I can tell you that among the Irish populace, for people who experienced an extreme weather event, their emotional and psychological response was above the national average in that they had higher levels of PTSD, anxiety and depression.”

While more extreme weather events have occurred globally in recent times, Ms O’Dwyer said even moderate occurrences on our doorstep can have a bigger impact on the nation’s mental health.

“Objectively, you might say a flash flood of the Indus river in Asia is worse than the Lee in Cork breaking its banks, but subjectively it’s all relative to what your background experience is,” she said. “If you look back to 2018, for example, most people would say we had a lovely summer when it was 32 degrees, but anyone in the agricultural community would tell you they were all very anxious during the drought, it was a risk to their livelihoods and it took its toll on them.”

Ms O’Dwyer was speaking after a separate study she published with fellow researchers at UCC found the odds of developing mental health issues are 90pc higher for people who were exposed to extreme weather. The team also discovered women and minorities are at a higher risk of being affected.

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Citing figures from the Centre of Epidemiology of Disasters that reported a tenfold increase in the number of climate-related disaster events in the past 70 years, the researchers looked at data from 61,500 people exposed to extreme weather events. More than three-quarters were assessed for post-traumatic stress disorder, followed by depression (40.3pc) and anxiety (23.4pc), the UCC study found.

Meanwhile Ireland’s mental health experts are noticing an increase in stress linked to the pandemic. Dr Harry Barry said toxic stress and low frustration tolerance (LFT) are becoming more common. Toxic stress can occur when a person experiences strong, frequent or prolonged adversity. They can feel overwhelmed, as though they are in constant danger, even when there are no obvious external threats.

Dr Barry said: “Toxic stress is the one no one is recognising. It’s where we are constantly tired, we are ‘wired’ all the time, on edge, we are not sleeping well, we are short with loved ones and demotivated, cognitively impaired and not enjoying life as much as we used to. No one thought the pandemic would go on for this long and I think people are worn out.

“If you are constantly getting a barrage of bad news, you will start to catastrophise and then you will find yourself anxious and it will become a low grade background anxiety.  I think it affects women more because they generally take the hit in society.

“Toxic stress can trigger frustration and frustration is the greatest under-discussed emotion in mental health. A person with LFT will want the situation to change but they don’t want to change themselves.

“How will you know them? They are short with people, edgy. They are the kinds who are out in public and who are on a short fuse. You will always know someone with LFT by their behaviour.

“The person who is frustrated has a demand on the situation around them — they think the situation shouldn’t be like that, the Government shouldn’t be making these rules, why the hell should they have to put up with them?”


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