How Extreme Weather Affects Mental Health

Out of control fire on Narrow Neck Plateau, Katoomba, Blue Mountains, Australia. Climate change is causing extreme weather, prolonged droughts and increasing bushfires

Andrew Merry / Getty Images

Extreme weather conditions are becoming the norm as we face a worsening climate crisis. Since 1850, warm weather has been consistently rising and causing extreme weather events like heat waves, heavy precipitation, drought, and tropical cyclones.

These conditions, which have devastating effects on a community, can cause short- and long-term effects on people's mental health.

Extreme weather can cause anxiety, changes in psychological patterns, post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), and other mental health conditions.

This article explores why this happens, which conditions are most frequently associated with weather-related events, and how you can protect your mental health amidst climate crises.

Facing the Persistent Threat of Extreme Weather Conditions

Knowing the grim effects of climate change, some people are experiencing climate change anxiety (CCA) or "eco-anxiety," which is a negative cognitive, emotional, or behavioral response to climate change.

This feeling of helplessness is most often felt by younger adults, but anyone is susceptible to it. 

Globally, we’re experiencing more weather-related disasters than ever before. In the United States, there have been 20 different extreme weather events in 2021, from a wildfire and drought to severe storms and tropical cyclones, all of which impacted 1 in 10 households.

These events can be devastating, especially for people living in disaster-prone areas or of lower socioeconomic status who face direct exposure.

Extreme weather events are anxiety-inducing for many reasons. Your physical safety is put in danger. You may have to leave your home and community behind. You may lose power or water. Your car or home may be destroyed. These scenarios could leave you without water, shelter, heat or air conditioning, all of which are needed for survival. 

Weather-related disasters can also impact your finances, employment status, or access to medical care, social services, and community resources, which is why extreme weather events, like hurricanes and wildfires, activate the fight-or-flight response in the autonomic nervous system (ANS), and pose a significant threat to mental health. 

While we need this emotional response to protect ourselves, especially in dangerous situations, sometimes it can feel paralyzing and actually prevent us from problem-solving and taking appropriate action.

How to Prepare for Extreme Weather Conditions

If you know that a weather-related event is on the horizon, then you’ll want to channel your nervous energy into buying food, water, and necessary items, or making preparations to leave the city until the threat is over. Because extreme weather is out of your control, it’s important to take precautions, but have coping strategies available so the stress, fear, and anxiety doesn’t become overwhelming.

Impact of Weather-Related Disasters

“Any situation that threatens the predictability and safety of our surroundings likely evokes a trauma response. To what extent and in what fashion is often quite individual, emerging from the particular person’s history, coping style, and even culture,” says Norman Blumenthal, Ph.D, Director of Trauma, Bereavement and Crisis Intervention at OHEL Children's Home and Family Services

When weather-related disasters strike, businesses are flooded, power lines are broken, and homes are destroyed, forcing people to evacuate, find new housing, or move out of the city they call “home.”

Some end up living in unsafe housing conditions or become homeless, often without the resources or support needed to rebuild in the aftermath of an extreme weather event.

Natural Disasters Lead to Loss

For many, these weather-related disasters involve significant loss, displacement, or financial instability—leading to various mental health concerns.

Extreme weather events can also interfere with access to services like mental or behavioral health care, which exacerbates the severity of mental health symptoms, Ling Lam, PhD, MFT, licensed psychotherapist and executive coach, explains. 

People with a lower socioeconomic status are more likely to face hardship, as they may lose jobs, not have the resources to fix damaged homes, access food sources or transportation, or afford health or mental healthcare.

This is why a state’s emergency response and community efforts are so vital to protecting, maintaining, and ensuring the health and mental health of community members.

Mental Health Disorders Associated With Extreme Weather Events

While mental health issues can develop from an extreme weather event, the norm is resilience and coping, says Dr. Blumenthal.

Norman Blumenthal, PhD

Most survivors will report distinct memories of the calamity in concert with experiences of personal change and growth as a result of the threat and potential harm posed…Those of us who work in the field of trauma and misfortune are often marveling at the strength, unity, and emotional reserve of the survivors.

— Norman Blumenthal, PhD

Following an extreme weather event, it’s important to seek or accept mental health services and treatment if you’re experiencing any overwhelming mental health symptoms, such as:

Some of the most common mental health disorders associated with extreme weather include:

“People who are struggling with mental health issues generally have reduced coping capacity and the added stressors could tip the scale and overwhelm them resulting in arousal dysregulation,” says Dr. Liam.

If you have a history of mental or behavioral health conditions, or are experiencing a pre-existing mental health condition, your symptoms may return or worsen in extreme weather events, you’ll want to act preventatively to address these issues, especially because services or treatment may be temporarily cut off during a disaster.

A Word From Verywell

With climate change, we’re bound to experience more extreme weather events. Knowing this, you’ll want to prepare yourself for the possibility of weather-related disasters, which could include floods, heat waves, or tornadoes. You can focus on making environmentally-friendly choices in your day to day, building an emergency response for your household, compiling a list of local community services, and meeting with a therapist or mental health professional to learn new coping strategies.

When extreme weather hits, do your best to stay calm. Recognize what’s outside of your control and stay focused on your physical safety and mental health. If you live alone, reach out to neighbors or community members for support. It’s important to understand that you’re not alone in your experience. 

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6 Sources
Verywell Mind uses only high-quality sources, including peer-reviewed studies, to support the facts within our articles. Read our editorial process to learn more about how we fact-check and keep our content accurate, reliable, and trustworthy.
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