With more than three months left in the Atlantic hurricane season, anxiety is ever present among those who live in vulnerable areas. If you have experienced a disaster such as Hurricane Harvey, this fear can be overwhelming for both children and adults.
Dr. Eric Storch, a psychologist with Baylor College of Medicine, says there are ways to stay prepared and reduce mental stress before a potential storm reaches shore.
Before the storm
During hurricane season, alleviating uncertainty is key to reducing stress – particularly among children. Storch recommends these tips to develop a family emergency communication plan:
- Become familiar with local shelters and evacuation routes
- Decide where to get emergency updates from
- Write down phone numbers in case phones get lost or left behind
- Decide what you need to take with you for family medical needs, including medications:
- Refills for prescription medications can be difficult to access in an emergency situation
- Know which medications are needed
- Know the availability of refills
- Identify an out-of-town connection that can help reconnect the household
- Decide on a safe emergency meeting place
- Understand workplace or school emergency response plans
- Plan for pets
- Review the plan together as a family
If you live in a home or neighborhood that was impacted by a previous storm, try to encourage children to share their thoughts about these experiences.
“Kids are quite resilient, but you want to be mindful of how traumatic symptoms may display after disaster exposure. Such problems – which can include distressing recollections, fear, somatic symptoms, and behavioral symptoms – can escalate over time. It is important to be open to talking about their fears with them and explaining disasters in a way they can understand,” Storch said.
Self-care and coping methods
While it’s important to stay informed, you should also be aware of the following maladaptive signs and reactions whenever a storm is approaching:
- Excessive stress or anxiety
- Constantly checking the weather
- Eating or sleeping too much or too little
- Somatic concerns, including stomachaches, restlessness, or agitation
- Feeling antsy or having difficulty focusing
- Certain storm-related sounds or memories triggering emotional distress
Looking for ways to reduce anxiety on your own? Storch shares two methods: Progressive muscle relaxation (PMR) and guided imagery. While these approaches may be helpful for people to cope effectively with mild distress, those that are experiencing more heightened degrees of distress should consider consulting with a mental health provider.
PMR can help reduce feelings of anxiety and alleviate issues with sleeping. Follow these steps to practice PMR:
- Choose a place where you will not be interrupted
- Breathe in, and tense your feet by clenching them for four to 10 seconds
- Unclench your feet and relax for 10 to 20 seconds before you work on the next muscle group
- Breathe in, and tense your lower legs for four to 10 seconds
- Relax for 10 to 20 seconds
- Continue for each major muscle group, working your way up your body
- When finished count backwards from five to one to bring your focus back to the present
- If you have limited time, you can focus on relaxing muscles that you know feel tight or tense – where do you carry your stress?
- Find a comfortable position to sit in and close your eyes
- Start by taking a few deep breaths to help you relax
- Picture a setting that is calm and peaceful. This can be anything you find relaxing
- Imagine your scene and try to add some detail. Is there a breeze? What do you smell? What do you feel? What does the surroundings look like?
- It can help to add a path to the scene. If you are on a beach, imagine a path to the water
- When you’re deep into the scene and feeling relaxed, take a few minutes to breathe slowly and feel the calm
- Think of a simple word or sound that can be used in the future to help you return to this place
- When you are ready, slowly take yourself out of the scene and back to the present but keep your eyes closed
- Tell yourself that you will feel relaxed and refreshed and will bring your sense of calm with you
- Count to three and open your eyes
- Notice how you feel right now
Storch adds that social support is a critical part of coping effectively.
“Re-establish a routine, spend time with family and friends, engage in enjoyable and relaxing activities, and talk with trusted friends and community leaders.”
Dr. Storch is a professor and McIngvale Presidential Endowed Chair in the Menninger Department of Psychiatry and Behavioral Sciences at Baylor.
Learn about the Baylor Psychiatry Clinic or call 713-798-4857.
-By Nicole Blanton