Texas A&M study finds repeated exposure to disasters negatively impacts mental health

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COLLEGE STATION, Texas (KBTX) — A Texas A&M study shows that the old adage that “what doesn’t kill you makes you stronger” isn’t necessarily true.

Research has found that people who are repeatedly exposed to disasters, whether natural or man-made, experience negative mental health effects over time. That’s probably not surprising, but the study’s lead author, Garett Samson, says it shows that going through one disaster doesn’t better prepare someone for another, at least from a perspective mental and emotional.

“While we saw individuals go through two, three or four different experiences, even five with dangers, we started to see a marked decrease in mental health, even above one standard deviation of what you would expect. you expect at the national level,” Samson said. , who is a researcher at the Texas A&M Superfund Research Center and the School of Public Health, said. “What we found is that it’s not so much a specific hazardous event that can lead to decreased mental health and well-being, it’s the type of exposures that last for a long time. , then repeated again and again. again.”

Sansom and his team studied more than 1,100 people in the greater Houston area and their responses to a standardized mental health survey. It uses a standards-based algorithm so that the results can be compared to other measurements. The survey asked questions about difficulty doing chores or daily tasks, going out, and performance at work to assess the respondent’s mental health status.

Sansom says that while he wasn’t surprised that this repeated exposure to disasters led to lower mental health scores, he was surprised by the extent of the declines over time. He says another interesting trend revealed by the data was that people aged 65 and over had less reduction in their scores.

“It could indicate some coping mechanisms and the ability of people in this age range to recover from these things,” Sansom said. “But even that being said, all groups have had a reduction, just the elderly less.”

He says the risks for people to experience these dangers exist in many communities across the country, and are only expected to increase in the future.

“It is important that we understand both the impact this has on mental health, but also that we are able to provide the services people need to be able to make a meaningful recovery and get back to their lives,” Sansom said.

Dana Martinez is a local councilor with Uphill consulting services who says that PTSD and trauma are among the most common mental health impacts that disasters can have on people.

“PTSD and trauma can present in so many different ways, and you’re going to see all kinds of things from natural disasters,” Martinez said. “You’re going to have flashback memories, trouble sleeping, feeling like you’re going through that again, high trauma, high anxiety. Often what I find is that people feel like they’re going crazy. They have no words or understanding of what is really going on in their brains after going through something really, really bad.

Martinez says mental health professionals and everyday people need to move beyond the traditional expectation of what causes trauma in order to better treat it.

“Let’s normalize going to talk to someone,” Martinez said. “Let’s make it a priority to help everyone find a safe place where they can be heard, they can’t feel crazy. They can be understood.

Martinez says she tries to work with these patients to help dampen the part of the brain known as the amygdala. Its general function is to regulate emotions and to link emotional meanings to memories.

“I talk to clients about turning down the amygdala volume so it doesn’t go off every second of the day,” Martinez said. “I’m going to help them learn to breathe, to meditate, to talk about it – to do things that activate the parasympathetic nervous system, things like exposure to cold. Talking and going through our feelings is very important, but also to do very simple things for ten minutes a day that really start to help your brain rewire itself after PTSD and trauma.

Although Martinez says there’s no substitute for the help anyone can get from a professional, everyday people can have a significant impact too. She says just being there to listen can go a long way.

“Be there for the people. Listen. Ask them how they are,” Martinez said. “You don’t need to have the answers. You just have to let them be where they are. Love them and listen to them. Normalize that it’s hard what they live. You don’t have to fix it, just be there and sit with them. It changes everything for people, and we can all do it.

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