Mental Health & the Psychology of Surviving a Hurricane
Having lived through my second hurricane in Florida (Hurricane Andrew was my first), I have some ideas about what makes the experience less stressful for those who are stuck in place. While I can’t begin to imagine the devastation experienced by many people living in the Florida Keys and many of the Caribbean islands, I think there are some things you can do that will help your mental health and stress levels.
The most important thing is your physical safety and that of your loved ones. But after you’ve accounted for everyone’s physical well-being, your psychological and emotional safety are equally important. Here’s how psychologically to survive a hurricane.
1. Find physical safety
In order to help alleviate your anxiety and improve your emotional well-being during a hurricane, you will need to be as physically safe as possible. For some people, that may mean sheltering in place. But for most individuals and families, that means getting yourself to a more secure location. It may be a local shelter or a newer hotel. Any commercial building built within the past 20 years in Florida, for instance, has to meet stricter hurricane standards than older buildings. If you’re in such a building, you’re going to be safe from most hurricanes.
People on islands have fewer choices and may be looking at structures built long before modern hurricane building standards. If that’s the case, your best bet may be to evacuate the island and get yourself out of the path of the storm. Know where your local public shelters are in advance of the storm. Most counties have local emergency websites setup to share such information.
Remember, the more safe you feel physically, the less anxiety you’ll have.
2. Stock up
One of the hardest parts of living through the hurricane isn’t the experience itself (if you’re in a secure location), as it will pass over or around you mostly out of sight (because you shouldn’t be looking out or standing next to any windows, just to be safe). The hardest part is living through the days or even weeks after.
Your community may be left without electricity, Internet service, cell service, water, or sewer services. While we all hope the government and utility companies will restore these services as quickly as possible, that’s not always possible. Islands are especially vulnerable to long-term disruption. You need to prepare to live for days with only the water and food you brought with you. A battery-powered radio will help you keep in touch with what’s going on, and a battery-powered fan can help you keep cool.
If you have family or friends staying geographically close to you, consider investing in a pair of old-fashioned walkie-talkies because they’ll work when cell service is down. Prices range from $26 to $50 for a pair, which can reach one another anywhere from 3 to 30 miles apart.
Don’t wait until the last minute to start preparing. You may find needed supplies unavailable, which will only increase your anxiety and decrease your mental health.
3. Prepare your friends & family
You have no control over Mother Nature and what she decides to destroy in a storm. That means you may be disconnected from communication with your friends and family for more than a couple days. Prepare everyone ahead of time for the possibility that they may not hear from you, but not to worry. You’ll reach out to them as soon as you are able. They’ll have to trust in your ability, and that you’re going to be okay.
Investigate where the closest old-fashioned pay phone is, too. You never know — such a phone may be operational sooner than cell phone or Internet service.
4. Stop watching TV and getting your news from the Internet
Television stations and news media websites make their money from keeping you glued to their channel or site. That means they’re invested in making everything seem as bad as it possibly can be. In listening to media coverage of Hurricane Irma, few broadcasts mentioned (except in passing) that the storm was immediately downgraded from a Category 4 hurricane to a Category 2 hurricane after it made landfall on the Florida mainland (around Naples). A Category 2 storm is still deserving of your respect, but it’s very different than the full intensity of the storm everyone had been predicting.1
So the best thing to do is to NOT watch the non-stop media hurricane coverage. It will just make you feel anxious while imparting little useful information.
5. Do keep track of the hurricane’s movement
That doesn’t mean you should hide from legitimate information about the storm’s movements. Government websites — such as weather.gov — will provide you the exact same information that your local news channel gets from NOAA. Why not go right to the source and read for yourself about where the storm is and how it’s tracking? If you need it further interpreted or analyzed for you, turn to the weather-type of websites that do this for a living, such as weather.com or accuweather.com. They provide less-biased reporting of the storm, without the hyperbole of local TV stations and websites.
6. Keep your mind occupied
When the electricity is gone, all the modern conveniences of everyday life leave us, too. It’s easy to forget that virtually everything we rely on for entertainment and information requires electricity (and in many cases, either working Internet or cell service). You can sit around and think deep thoughts. Or you can prepare ahead of time for the endless daylight hours that await you before and after a hurricane comes.
Stock up on books, word games, or crossword puzzles, magazines, cards (for card games), puzzles, and if you’re with others, get out your board games for something different. Now’s the time to catch up on some serious reading.
You can also engage in mind exercises. Techniques such as mindfulness, gratefulness, and relaxation exercises can all be put to good use during this time, to help keep anxiety and boredom at bay.
7. Keep your body occupied
There are a number of ways to keep your body occupied, which can help take your mind off of what’s happening around you. This can be as simple as doing some exercise. While you can’t go outside, you can take a walk around your house, shelter, or hotel. You can do simple calisthenics — such as lunges, sit-ups, crunches, push-ups, and more — virtually anywhere. It can help pass the time. (Keep in mind you may not be able to shower, so keeping the workout short and simple may help.)
8. Stay as clean as you can
Sometimes we can start feeling grungy in our emotions when we are feeling grungy in our clothes. While you may not be able to shower for a few days, you can prepare for the lack of showering ahead of time. There are a few strategies people use, including stocking up on clean wipes, liquid soap, washcloths, and a bathtub full of water. (You’ll also use that bathtub full of water to help flush the toilet when your water goes out.) Give yourself a washcloth bath when you start to feel a little grungy or smell, and you’ll feel cleaner instantly. Keeping some sanitizing liquid with you will help you keep your hands clean when running water becomes unavailable.
These little things will help you keep feeling human and in control of your own life when surrounded by an uncontrollable natural event.
Be safe and prepare well in advance for the hurricane, and you’ll ride it out like a champ. Remember to treat every categorized or named hurricane as a serious storm deserving of your respect and preparation ahead of time (again, don’t wait until the last minute.). With planning and a little luck, your efforts will most likely pay off after the hurricane has passed. Good luck.
- For instance, the day after the storm, I watched a reporter standing on a virtually unscathed section of Fort Myers Beach claiming there was “devastation” (a few branches were down and an awning had been ripped off of one of the businesses). Apparently, he hadn’t seen the photos from St. John’s and Barbuda — two islands that suffered true devastation. Which is the point — reporters’ jobs are to make it all sound horrible and horrifying, even when it’s not that bad. [↩]
Grohol, J. (2017). Mental Health & the Psychology of Surviving a Hurricane. Psych Central. Retrieved on February 19, 2018, from https://psychcentral.com/blog/mental-health-the-psychology-of-surviving-a-hurricane/