Science

Climate trauma when natural disasters cause cognitive damage – Science et Avenir

Climate trauma caused by climate disasters can lead to long-term cognitive dysfunction, a study published in the journal PLoS Climate concludes for the first time. In the aftermath of the giant 2018 California wildfire, many survivors continue to have difficulty controlling intrusive thoughts and distractions.

November 8, 2018 in California (USA) there was a fire in the electrical circuit. Driven by the wind, Campfire will destroy over 621 km² before being fully contained on November 21st. As a result of the disaster, 85 people died, about 15 were injured and hundreds were injured. “It’s very important to better understand climate trauma because it could affect millions of people and climate change is accelerating,” psychiatrist Jyoti Mishra, who led the new work, explains to Science et Avenir.

Climate trauma and post-traumatic stress disorder

It is this recurrence, and this impact on a large number of people, that justifies the difference between “climate trauma” – a term that was coined only ten years ago – and post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). “Climate change-related stress or trauma is different from war-related post-traumatic stress disorder,” says Jyoti Mishra. The health effects are also slightly different, as the team demonstrated in a paper published in 2021 on 725 people exposed to the “camp fire” more than six months ago. “We found a high prevalence of depression and anxiety associated with climate trauma, which may or may not occur with post-traumatic stress disorder,” adds the psychiatrist. The effect was greater when the fire damage was close to the subject (destruction of his home, death of a loved one).

It remained to be seen whether the symptoms of climate change-related trauma translate into changes in cognitive functioning. And, in particular, the mental processes associated with attention, reaction inhibition (the ability to not react impulsively), working memory (the ability to retain confirmation for a short period of time, such as when writing an email or a phone number), and information processing. emotional or non-emotional interference, that is, the ability to ignore intrusive thoughts and emotions, lists Jyoti Mishra.

Victims of climate trauma have difficulty concentrating

In performance tests on 75 subjects, “we found deficiencies in interference processing, i.e. people exposed to fire were more distracted and could not easily focus on a task,” she reports. The consequences are classified as chronic (long-term), the victims were exposed to the “camp fire” already from 6 to 12 months ago.

On the electroencephalogram, researchers observe a lot of frontal brain activity. “This may be indicative of the greater cognitive effort they put in during the intervention task, compared to the control group.” Obviously, these people suffering from climate trauma had to make up for their failure by putting in extra effort to stay focused compared to healthy controls. Results that have been confirmed in all subjects exposed to the Campfire, even indirectly, and which echo what is observed in people suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder. “Climate trauma resembles post-traumatic stress disorder, but there is still a lot of work to be done to understand individual cognitive characteristics and those that are similar,” notes Jyoti Mishra.

If this study focuses on campfire, the researchers expect similar results in terms of cognitive and brain function dysfunction in other climate catastrophe contexts. In addition, they recommend that these people use strategies to reduce stress, such as mindfulness meditation, regular physical activity, good sleep, a healthy lifestyle, and strong social connections.

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