Preparing for a hurricane can be anxiety provoking. Part of the stress comes from the fact that we don’t know precisely where or when a hurricane may hit or how much damage it may do to our homes, the homes of family and friends, to our schools, to our jobs, businesses and pets. Ambiguity itself is a risk factor for feeling of anxiety and depression.

Then, there is the stress of preparation — waiting on lines for gas, trying to obtain generators and propane. Gathering the funds to purchase adequate supplies of food and water, making safe arrangements for pets, securing outdoor items and, in some cases, having to vacate our homes because they may not stand up to hurricane force winds. In this case, you have the difficult task of making travel arrangements on short notice and worry about what is going on at home when you are not there. This may cause you to feel helpless.

Enduring the hurricane itself is stressful, and then afterwards there is the need to cope with damage and loss, and to restore things to as close to normal as feasible.

Fortunately, Highlands County was spared Dorian. But there will be other hurricanes, other natural disasters. Thus, the question remains: How to minimize the impact of such natural disasters upon one’s mental health, so that while they may be a negative event they are not experienced as a lasting trauma. First, understand that before, during and after a natural disaster it is normal to experience symptoms of acute stress. You may be physically or emotionally exhausted, and may find it harder to concentrate and make decisions. You may be fearful or sad. You may feel overwhelmed or isolated. Accept these feelings as natural, but don’t hyper focus on them.

Depending on your experience, you may be grieving the loss of pets, neighbors, friend, family, and belongings that might have sentimental value. So, what are practical things you can do to self-soothe? Well, you can begin by doing slow deep breathing for about 10 minutes. This helps calm your nervous system down. Remind yourself that your feelings are normal and treat yourself with compassion. At the same time, focus on doing practical things like eating healthy foods and hydrating regularly with water.

It is unhealthy to think about what you should have or could have done, or what is coming in the future. Instead, try to focus on the present and take things one step at a time. If you need help, reach out to neighbors, friends and family members. Keep informed but try not to constantly watch the news, which often sensationalizes what is occurring with a focus on the negative. If you do think of past traumas, remember the personal strengths and skills that helped you maneuver them successfully. Recalling your previous successes at overcoming past traumatic events helps to build your emotional resilience and ability to cope with present challenges.

If you find your mind drawn to think about possible future problems, remind yourself that you don’t have the future. You only have the present and the future problems you worry about may never come to fruition. Instead, write a list of what you need to do now and what resources you have to accomplish your goals.

After you have done what you are able to, take time from focusing on stress and loss to find small moments of joy. Look at the sun, listen for the sounds of kittens and birds, splash some fresh water on your face and enjoy the coolness. Enjoy hugs you receive from friends, neighbors and family. Focus on all the good things in your life to put the natural disaster in perspective and help your brain calm the sympathetic nervous system, turn on the parasympathetic nervous system and rebalance.

If you are experiencing a mental health crisis:

1. If you have a true mental health emergency and feel at risk for harming or killing yourself or others, please call 911.

2. If you are having suicidal thoughts, call the National Suicide Prevention Hotline at 800-273-8255.

3. Try calling NAMI Helpline (National Alliance on Mental Illness) 800-950-6264.

If you were not in the hurricane’s path, but have family and friends who were, give them a call and really listen. Offer any help you can and help them think about and access local resources. Accept whatever they are feeling and don’t blame them for staying in their home as leaving can be very traumatic, especially for seniors. Ask how they are doing and accept whatever they say. Let them talk as long or as often as they need. Don’t take charge but do ask how you can help. This might include sending money, bringing clean-up items, food, or home furnishing, helping file insurance claims, and helping in the search for temporary housing. Most of all, be patient with those who are victims of a hurricane as it takes time to heal. Be patient with us. It will take time for us to recover.

Susan Crum, Ph.D., is a licensed psychologist with Central Florida Neuropsychology, LLC in Sebring. Guest columns are the opinion of the writer, not necessarily that of the Highlands News-Sun.

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