Hurricane season is one of the most stressful times of the year for people living in the Atlantic and Gulf of Mexico regions — those most vulnerable to hurricanes. No matter whether it’s an active season or not, there will undoubtedly be an unending number of major storms in the minds of residents — about 60.2 million people.
Every June through November, meteorologists track projected paths of damage and destruction for each hurricane, and journalists continuously report “disaster porn” that only fuels anxiety, giving folks 24/7 access to increased distress. Residents watch helplessly and nervously with bated breath often wondering thoughts such as will this be the year the storm heads straight for me and my luck runs out?
Hurricane season can strain even the most mentally strong people. The uncertainty of whether you will have to evacuate and sit for hours in gridlocked traffic, possibly losing your possessions, home, and/or loved ones while enduring a long recovery period, and even realizing your life may never be the same again all contribute to deeply-seeded and highly-draining anxiety that sprouts up every year like a toxic crop.
When it comes to hurricane season anxiety, the feelings it brings to a person can be just as powerful as a category 5 storm. In fact, a study found that for many people anticipating pain is worse than actually experiencing it. This is called anticipatory anxiety, the fear and dread you experience before the event. For example, you spend weeks dreading an upcoming dentist appointment, yet everything turns out fine.
While anticipatory anxiety is one aspect of hurricane season, the resulting stress from it and the aftermath of any storms experienced can overload a person’s mental health.
How do people who experience stress each hurricane season deal with the anxiety since hurricane seasons last for 4 months and they just seem to be getting worse?
Anxiety is a normal neurological reaction to intense situations. It is especially important to note that the body’s response to distress is intentional. (How to Make Stress Your Friend). Our heart racing and palms sweating are giving us the fresh oxygen we need to think clearly to address the issue at hand.
However, when our reaction to these events results in a learned fear — such as learning by past experience that the word “hurricane” means loss of home and even life — then these normal neurological events result in a sort of emotional and/or mental distress. People panic, become immobile, or even aggressive. These ineffective coping behaviors become the momentary fix, yet they do not unlearn that fear. Examples of when people may be using quick fixes include:
- distracting yourself with online gaming, shopping, working, or even helping others,
- using alcohol or drugs in hopes that the fear will go away or stop,
- binge eating to satiate the nerves, or
- avoiding it all by staying in bed or by just not watching the weather.
If you have a history of a bad hurricane experience, it is normal to get more anxious than people who have not learned this type of fear, like losing their home. What should you do to get through hurricane season then?
There are a variety of suggestions that were identified through research on resiliency following Hurricane Katrina. It is important to adjust our perspectives to grow your resiliency.
- Be compassionate. It is important to be patient with ourselves and one another when we feel distressed. Keep in mind that being compassionate has the ability to makes us emotionally stronger.
- Take responsibility. It is a common behavior to choose to blame others when we experience negative emotions. Taking responsibility for how we address events gives us the sense of retaining our individual sense of true power and control, which lowers distress levels. So, make the decision about how you and your family need to interact in each situation based on your unique status and needs.
- Value the time you are with one another. The quality of your experience with another person is so much more meaningful than the number of your belongings. Making meaningful memories during times of distress has shown us we can thrive and appreciate how capable we are together.
- Believe in yourself as capable. Incorporate self-care solutions to address the symptoms associated with anxiety and distress, like relaxation techniques at bedtime, writing about thoughts and feelings, connecting with loved ones, and taking a few minutes to play.
- Stay socially connected. Community activities with family, friends, and spiritual and/or social groups are the strongest holistic medicines we know to relieve anxiety and lighten depression. Be a part of something more than just you.
- Be aware of when you are feeling stressed. When we know what is happening inside of us, we are then able to be mindful of how we respond to situations. Frequently, taking a few deep breaths can go a long way toward lowering stress.
- Look at the situation realistically. We each have the ability to decide how to act. This is how we have control in each situation. Believing we can control situations past what is reality results in feeling out of control, aka distressed.
- Accept what you can control. When we keep track of each step taken to address a concern we are then living in the present, working with what is within our reach, and staying focused on life as it presents itself. Focusing on “what if” thoughts only have the ability to increase those distressful neurotransmitters resulting in increased anxiety.
How do we recognize anxiety about hurricane season? Is it different than other types of anxiety?
While there are different causes that result in anxiety and it may look different for different people, there really aren’t different types. Though, there are two overarching causes of anxiety.
- a fear of something or someone, for example, events, insects, elevators, or traumatic memories, and
- a neurological imbalance of stress hormones, whereby the person is unable to identify a “reason” for the distress.
In either case, emotionally it can present as isolation, nervousness, or an unexpected delay in responding. It can also look like anger, resistance, or an impulsive reaction. Our body’s physiological presentation of anxiety includes an increased heart rate, weakness, tension in the abdomen, muscle tension, fatigue, a loss of concentration, and/or difficulty sleeping. It is normal to feel opposite feelings at the same time when we are anxious as well, e.g., nervous and excited or angry and resistant.
How do you know if you should contact a professional for treatment?
Earlier rather than later is a good motto. You have a better chance of a smoother recovery. However, we strongly encourage you to connect with a mental health counselor if you notice:
- an increase in your decisions to avoid events because of fear,
- a decrease or a drastic increase in your sleep,
- an increase in re-experiencing the fears in your sleep,
- an increase in being more emotionally reactive or sensitive than usual,
- a persistent mental chatter, and/or
- if you believe you are not functioning as well as your usual.
Mental health therapists are trained to assist you with research-based tools that will directly address your distress.
What else should you know about managing hurricane season anxiety?
Watch this video of family and marriage therapist Susan Harrington, founder of Maison Vie New Orleans, discussing what you can do to manage your hurricane season anxiety now and for future storms. You can also contact us to see how we can help guide you through counseling sessions.