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Preserving Our Mental Health During Hurricanes

Jerry Reves, M.D.
August 25, 2023
Stock photo of street lined with palm trees.

September is the peak hurricane time for the Atlantic Coast. Lowcountry old-timers know that.

These recurrent threats represent major stressors to our mental and physical health. Thus, this article is about minimizing that psychological aspect since we can do nothing about preventing the direction of these powerful storms.

Stress is a condition over which we have little or no control. There’s no better example than a potentially devastating Category 4 storm like Hugo headed in our direction. Stress symptoms include increased blood pressure, increased heart rate, release of all sorts of hormones, sleep deprivation, anxiety, and, in some people, fear. The main problem is anxiety.

Unabated stress for long periods can have major physiological and psychological effects on our health. Fortunately, hurricanes come and go and, in general, have no lasting effects — unless we have a direct hit as we did with Hugo.

Hurricane Stress: The Crescendo Effect

Ironically, the very nature of modern hurricane forecasting adds to our stress. After all, weather forecasters alert us the moment a “tropical disturbance” floats off the African coast. And as they get “better formed” and finally are named, we’re updated throughout the day by our faithful meteorologists through TV, print media, NOAA weather bulletins, and social media. As early as possible, they begin highlighting the potential danger long before any real danger is imminent. We’re threatened before there’s a threat!

Finally, if the storm is headed our way, we’re told that the storm poses a “threat to the mainland,” perhaps days after we’ve begun to imagine the potential disruption that the hurricane can bring to our region. The newspaper, TV stations, and the weather channel begin an early, unrelenting barrage of the potential harm that these massive storms pose to us. It’s impossible to ignore — nor should we — this steady stream of early warnings. As a storm gets closer, only the most stoic or ignorant ignore it.

Even when the weather is picture-perfect, many of us can imagine the high winds and rain out in the ocean. Our imaginations can go into overdrive when the media replay videos and show photos of flooded streets, toppled trees, homes, and downed power lines caused by disastrous storms like Katrina. We can now imagine the consequences for our own neighborhoods, and we realize that, despite all the hurricane preparedness literature and education, we’re not prepared for everything.

Compounding Hurricane Stress with 11th-Hour Decisions

By then, our stress level is higher than full-force hurricane winds – at the very time we must make important decisions. Should we stay or should we go? How will we take care of our pets? And what should we take with us? Do we board up the house? What will our insurance cover? Where can we evacuate, and what is the best route? How will we find out about the extent of damage, and when can we return?

Then there’s the chaos of evacuation. I-26 resembled a parking lot when residents tried to leave our area ahead of Hurricane Floyd. The fact that everyone leaves at the same time is the fundamental problem, one compounded by the reality that there just aren’t enough ways out of our area.

Mental Health Preservation Plan

What can we do to minimize stress? The list in the sidebar includes some steps to follow for hurricane mental health. These are entirely unproven but borrowed by me from the lay and medical literature to minimize the stress and trauma of a major hurricane.

First, accept the fact that we live in a hurricane-prone area. Although periodic updates are necessary, preoccupation with the course of a storm is unhealthy. Checking every six to eight hours is the recommended frequency.

Since hurricanes are as certain as the ebb and flow of the tide, one should prepare for them by planning.

The time for planning is before hurricane season. A written plan is desirable. Put together a “hurricane box” that contains all the essentials. The box must contain a week’s worth of medicine, as well as the prescriptions for them. Floyd taught us that we need to have alternative evacuation routes to I-26: “Nuff said.”

A final and crucial step is to have an established communication link with a reliable information source regarding your home. The Post and Courier website is good, but not perfect.

The Bottom Line

Have your hurricane box with your medications in it and a full tank of gas in your exit vehicle. Execute your plan, and this will help reduce the anxiety and stress – until next year.