4 Tips for Avoiding Hurricanxiety

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Photo by Brian Cook on Unsplash

This week’s post is something a little different.  Instead of addressing the way our thinking influences our anxiety and depression, it focuses on how we can avoid increasing our anxiety by not making a bad situation worse.  The 2017 hurricane season has been a monster, and it’s not over yet.  During a recent evacuation, there were several moments where I truly thought I was going to lose my marbles.  Anxiety levels were nearing sky-high, but I managed to learn a few things which kept me sane and made the situation much more manageable.  These are ideas you may not see on the standard “hurricane preparedness” checklists, but which may be helpful in reducing the stress of hurricane season.

BOOK A ROOM (whether you need it, or not)

If a hurricane is headed your way – even if its predicted landing is several days out – book a hotel room at a reasonable evacuation point, away from the path of the storm.  Be careful which website you book from, since many are “pay up front” reservations.  What you want is a hotel with a friendly cancellation policy, such as “24 hours ahead” or “by 10:00am on day of check-in.”  Then, watch and wait.  You will most likely know prior to the cancellation window if you will need the room or not.  If not, breathe a sigh of relief and cancel the reservation within the window to avoid penalties.  If you do need to evacuate, you already have a room and don’t have to compete with the thousands of other evacuees looking for a hotel at the last minute.  If you have pets, be sure to book at a pet-friendly hotel.

FUEL UP

During Irma, hundreds of thousands of Floridians passed through our small town.  Due to the influx of evacuees, by the time an evacuation was ordered locally, there were limited resources for residents.  Gas pumps all over town were empty, and people were lined up at every station waiting for petroleum trucks to arrive and replenish fuel supplies.  At the start of hurricane season, get a couple of 5 gallon gas cans, fill them up, and make sure you have a way to attach them to the outside of your car such as a bumper rack or a roof rack.  Basically, you want to ensure you have enough gas on-hand to reach your evacuation point, or at the very least to get you out of town.  Be sure to refill your cans whenever you find a station with gas.  The shortage is likely to extend beyond your hometown along the most popular evacuation routes, and it doesn’t end just because the storm has passed.  The same flood of evacuees has to return home, and people are running generators.  A lot of people run out of gas during evacuations.  Don’t be one of them.

VACUUM PACK

There is a lot of stress involved in deciding where to store your things when the places you usually store them are threatened by water and wind damage.  Consider buying some vacuum bags and keeping them on hand for hurricane season.  These serve two purposes: First, if you have to leave things behind, you can store your most precious items in these bags, vacuum seal them, and put them where you think they’ll be safe.  The vacuum seal removes extra air and allows you to stack or stuff the sealed bag into the attic, on top of a dresser, or to fit several seals bags onto an upper shelf.  If you are evacuating people and pets, space is precious in the car.  Consider vacuum packing your clothes instead of big bags or suitcases.  You can borrow the hotel’s vacuum to repack when you go home.  NOTE: During Irma, I was travelling with 3 adults and 3 pet carriers.  I was able to slip the vacuum packs under the pet carriers to save room, and we all rode comfortably — or as comfortably as possible under the circumstances.

DON’T RUSH

This may sound nuts, especially if you’ve been ordered to evacuate, but what I mean is don’t wait until the last minute to prepare.  Don’t wait until the day the storm is supposed to make landfall to hit the road, and when you do hit the road, you can avoid major traffic congestion by taking some back roads when available.  Take the time before you evacuate to map out alternate routes.

When you are on the road and in bumper-to-bumper traffic, don’t be afraid to pull off if you need a break.  I heard myself saying, “We are not exiting this freeway” and then I realized how ridiculous I was being.  With thousands of cars on the freeway, making a pit stop really doesn’t make any difference.  If you need to pee, stop to pee.  The situation is difficult enough without making yourself even more uncomfortable.  Granted, there may be a lot of people at the rest stop, but make the best of it by stretching and catching a breath of fresh air before returning to the car.  Then, if at all possible, avoid heading home the day after the storm hits.  Give yourself an extra day in order to avoid freeway gridlock.  You’ll be glad you did.

These are just a few simple things which proved beyond value for me and my fellow (and some furry) evacuees.  If you’ve learned something from your own hurricane experience – something other than the typical “stock up on non-perishables, water, batteries, and so forth – or if you find any of these tips helpful, I hope you will share them in the comments.

4 Steps to Conquering Anxiety

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Photo by Jeremy Bishop on Unsplash

A few years ago, I went through months of chronic and distressing anxiety.  I’d be in bed – or getting ready for bed – and a sudden wave of nausea would hit me.  This was followed by hot and cold sweats, light-headedness, and trembling.  My chest hurt and my heart would race like it was trying to escape my body.  My brain went into hyper-drive, blasting a series of run away, run away, run away messages.  A couple of times, I truly thought I might be having a heart attack, and even went to the emergency room.  When no physical cause for my symptoms was discovered, I was sent home, bewildered.  How could there be nothing wrong?  I felt not only several hundred dollars poorer, but also embarrassed and ashamed.  Quite frankly, I thought I was going nuts.  I had no idea these were panic attacks.  What I felt was physical, not mental…right?

I knew I couldn’t keep going to the ER, but also knew something was wrong.  I tried taking antidepressants and anti-anxiety meds for a while, but these left me feeling zombie-like and numb, and they didn’t actually prevent anxiety attacks.  I didn’t want to be medicated – I just wanted something that would stop these attacks in their tracks.  The doctors didn’t seem to understand (or believe) I wasn’t drug-seeking, and weren’t interested in explaining what was happening to me.  It was demoralizing and discouraging.  I decided to figure this out for myself – to find the safe equivalent of hitting myself in the head with a coconut – something to STOP the panic once it had started.

I started by tracking my symptoms and soon discovered my bouts of nausea were either caused by gastrointestinal issues or a “gut punch”.  You know the gut punch.  It’s the feeling which triggers our fight or flight response, such as when we suddenly get bad news.  Studies have shown people with anxiety have a faulty flight switch.  In other words, it flips on at random, sending panic messages from the brain to the various systems in the body, thus generating the physical sensations of a panic attack.

When the nausea would start, I’d go through a brief mental checklist to determine the source: Is this possibly food poisoning? Did I eat something which could trigger IBS / diverticulitis?  Most of the time, I was able to rule out a gastrointestinal cause for the nausea AND I was able to determine my IBS flare-ups and panic attacks followed similar — but distinctly different — patterns.  Identifying these differences was the key to feeling better.  I made some minor changes to my eating habits which GREATLY diminished my gastrointestinal issues, which in turn reduced some of my stress and meant less confusion between my physical and my mental health symptoms.

I began practicing the following thought-stopping / distraction techniques at the first signs of a panic attack:

  1. Counting backwards from 100
  2. Switching on a funny show and closing my eyes, picturing the action in my head instead of watching it on the screen. This forced me to focus on what I was hearing and helped me turn off the panic switch by activating a different area of my brain
  3. Taking long, deep breaths – three seconds to inhale, three seconds to exhale

These three techniques worked wonders for me, but it wasn’t an overnight cure.  I had to put these methods into practice and repeat them until I’d conditioned a habitual, healthy response to anxiety.  There were nights when I would have to count backwards from 100 more than once, or would lie awake listening to Bob’s Burgers for hours, but now I can honestly say I haven’t had a full-blown anxiety attack in at least two years.  I still get the gut punch on occasion, but am able to quickly calm myself and avoid those horrible heart-attack sensations.

The 4 Steps

  1. Track your symptoms
  2. Separate brain and body symptoms.  If possible, make changes to your daily habits to reduce symptoms related to medical conditions
  3. Find the patterns
  4. Use early distraction

If you are currently taking antidepressants or anti-anxiety medications, DO NOT stop taking them without your physician’s consent.  Mood disorders are complicated and many require medication to restore chemical balance in the brain.  The point of this post is NOT that you do not or should not need medication.  The point is you can attack your anxiety INSTEAD of allowing it to attack YOU!  When you learn to control your brain’s faulty fear factor, you not only minimize the physical and mental distress of a panic attack but also maximize the effectiveness of your medication.  You will start to FEEL better!