Once a solace, rain is now ruining Australia’s mood

Tourists are seen watching the Sydney Harbor Bridge in the rain

Sydney broke its annual rainfall record in October

“It’s like Groundhog Day. I wake up and it’s raining, dark and cold, over and over again.”

Rebecca Gray feels like it’s been raining all year in Sydney, Australia. She’s not far off.

The city has seen about 170 rainy days so far in 2022 – there have been more rainy days than dry days. And with almost a quarter of the year still to go, Sydney broke its annual rainfall record last month.

“It’s not like we just arrived,” said Tom Saunders, meteorologist at the Australian Broadcasting Corporation. “The record has been erased. I’ve never seen anything like it.”

More than 2.3m (7.5ft) of rain fell on the city, three times the annual average for London. It’s a similar story in the rest of Australia’s eastern states. Repeated and widespread flooding in these four regions has rendered thousands of homes uninhabitable and killed more than 30 people this year. Last week, two people died as towns in mid-west New South Wales (NSW) were under water.

The Bureau of Meteorology says the weather is influenced by several phenomena, including the La Nina pattern which in Australia increases the likelihood of rain and cyclones.

He warned that more dangerous months are ahead. With catchments already wet, any downpour could trigger more widespread flooding in eastern and northern Australia.

Kill “the national atmosphere”

Australia often likes to boast of having warm, sunny beach weather all year round. But this year, the country has looked more like humid Singapore or rainy Cardiff.

How Sydney compares to other rainy cities.  .  The graph shows how Sydney's average and 2022 rainfall compares to that of Singapore, Cardiff and Miami.

How Sydney compares to other rainy cities. . The graph shows how Sydney’s average and 2022 rainfall compares to that of Singapore, Cardiff and Miami.

Many Australians – like Ms Gray – may feel this is dampening their spirits.

“Some days I just don’t want to get out of bed,” she says, adding that because of the rain, seeing friends takes a lot more effort, exercise is confined indoors, ‘washing on the clothesline is next to impossible, and the house seems perpetually damp.

“Looks like we got a new interior designer who really likes wet clothes and black mold.”

Even the dog is above that, she said.

Rebecca Gray

Rebecca Gray says she’s sick of the weather

The weather impacts “the national mood”, says researcher and clinical psychologist Kim Felmingham.

There’s the biological impact: overcast weather blocks sunlight, lowers serotonin — dubbed the body’s happiness hormone — and affects sleep.

Then there’s the behavioral effect: rain can prevent people from getting out and doing activities that give them a sense of well-being, accomplishment or social connection, Prof Felmingham says.

“All of these contributing factors compound each other. If you have really incessant rain, we have clear evidence that can lower mood, lower energy levels and sometimes bring feelings of frustration, loneliness or bored,” he added.

A popular sound turns into a “trigger”

But many people are more than just bored and sad. They are also exhausted and traumatized.

When the worst flooding on record hit the town of Lismore in February, Naomi Worrall had the chance to get away with her life. She was forced to wait out the deluge on her roof, alone and terrified for hours.

“If the rain stopped at all, it was just enough that you could hear little screams coming from inside the houses,” she says. “I thought, I listen to people drown.”

Four people died and when the town flooded again a month later, a fifth drowned.

Naomi Worall

Floods devastated Naomi Worrall’s home and new business

The city is so on edge these days that even light showers can send waves of anxiety there, Ms Worrall says.

“The sound of rain on the roof is Australian comfort. Everyone loves that sound. And if there’s one thing I’ve heard almost everyone talk about, it’s the heartache that they feel for one of their favorite sounds turned into a trigger.”

‘Where next – and who next?’

The last two years of dramatic flooding have followed bushfires and record drought. While Australia has always been a land of extremes, experts say climate change is making these events worse and more frequent.

It is creating a mental health crisis, health professionals warn.

“People don’t get a chance to recover in between,” says clinical psychiatrist Cybele Dey, a member of Doctors for the Environment Australia. “And for people who have had multiple disasters, it’s not just the sum of the impacts…it’s aggravating.”

A survey – conducted multiple disasters ago, in 2020 – found that around 55% of the population said they had directly experienced at least one disaster. That number has likely increased since.

The same study also found that one in four respondents showed clinical signs of post-traumatic stress. And around one in 10 people had developed what psychologists call “eco-anxiety” – an increased sense of distress or anxiety about the future of the planet.

“Even if you are not directly affected by these events, you know someone [who is]or you witness some really palpable effects,” says Professor Felmingham. “There’s this question of, well, where and who next?

Dr. Dey says these findings are reflected in the stories she hears from her colleagues: more and more people are presenting significant distress to them about climate change.

And she thinks that trend will only get stronger: “Children born today can expect to experience many times more fossil fuel disasters than their grandparents.”

Developing Mental Resilience

Improving Australia’s mental resilience to disasters will be vital, says Dr Dey.

People who prepare for disasters – by making evacuation plans, for example – tend to feel less distress and recover faster than those who don’t, according to a study by the Australian Red Cross.

Training in mental health first aid, seeking support from people with similar experiences, and channeling stress into something productive can also help, Dr. Dey says.

But stronger government action on climate change would also dramatically improve people’s well-being, she says. “They can see that their plight matters and action is being taken,” she says. “People need to be able to see reasons for hope.”

Meanwhile, Mrs. Worrall tries to make peace with the rain – by planting flowers among other things.

“I try to remember that rain is essential to life and that’s a good thing,” she says. “It can’t be an enemy forever.”

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