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

Sansom and his team studied over 1,100 people from the greater Houston area and their responses...
Sansom and his team studied over 1,100 people from the greater Houston area and their responses to a standardized mental health survey.(KBTX)
Published: Jan. 24, 2022 at 11:10 PM CST
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COLLEGE STATION, Texas (KBTX) - A Texas A&M study shows that old adage of “what doesn’t kill you makes you stronger” isn’t necessarily true.

The research found that people who are repeatedly exposed to disasters, either natural or man-made, experience negative mental health impacts over time. This probably comes as little surprise, but the study’s lead author Garett Samson says it shows going through one disaster doesn’t better prepare someone to experience another one, at least from a mental and emotional standpoint.

“As we saw individuals getting two, three, or four different experiences, or even five with hazards, we began to see a marked decrease in mental health, even over a standard deviation of what you’d expect at the national level,” Samson, who is a researcher at the Texas A&M Superfund Research Center and School of Public Health, said. “What we found is it’s not so much any one specific hazard event that can cause a decrease in mental health and well-being, it’s the type of exposures that go on for a long period of time, and then having those repeat ones over and over again.”

Sansom and his team studied over 1,100 people from the greater Houston area and their responses to a standardized mental health survey. It uses a norm-based algorithm so the results can be compared to other metrics. The survey asked questions about difficulties completing daily chores or tasks, going outside, and performance at work to gauge the respondent’s mental health status.

Sansom says while he wasn’t surprised this repeated exposure to disasters led to decreased mental health scores, he was surprised by just how large the drops were as time went on. He says another interesting trend the data revealed was that people ages 65 and older had less of a reduction in their scores.

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

He says the risks for people to experience these hazards exist in many communities across the country, and they’re only projected to increase in the future.

“It’s important that we understand both the impact it has on mental health, but then also be able to provide the services that folks need to be able to recover in a meaningful way and resume their lives,” Sansom said.

Dana Martinez is a local counselor with Rise Counseling Services who says PTSD and trauma are some of the more common mental health impacts disasters can have on people.

“PTSD and trauma can look 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, sleep disturbances, feeling like you’re re-experiencing it, high trauma, high anxiety. A lot of times what I find is people feel like they’re going crazy. They have no words or understanding of what’s really happening in their brain after they’ve gone through something really, really bad.”

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

“Let’s normalize going to talk to somebody,” Martinez said. “Let’s make it a priority to help everybody get a safe place where they can be heard, they can not 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. It’s general function is regulate emotions and is involved in tying emotional meanings to memories.

“I talk to clients about turning down the volume of the amygdala so it’s not going off every second of the day,” Martinez said. “I will help them learn how to breathe, meditate, talk about it - doing things that activate or parasympathetic nervous system, things like cold exposure. Talking and walking through our feelings are very important, but also doing some real easy things for ten minutes a day that really start to help your brain rewire after PTSD and trauma.”

While Martinez says there’s no replacement for the help anyone can get from a professional, regular people can make a significant impact, too. She says just being there to listen can go a long way.

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

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