The Loss of Normalcy

Hurricane preparedness tells us what to do when life is in peril, but what’s our plan for handling the loss of normalcy?

The recent storm was all about the unexpected. After assurances that Hurricane Matthew would probably miss us, we experienced flooding, trees down, days without electrical power, and soggy refrigerators. Many people were shocked when their homes and streets were awash in rising water. Most of us were emotionally unprepared, not only for flooding, but also for the smaller disruptions. We were confronted with dead electronic devices, chirping smoke alarms, kids home from school, burglar alarms going off, and roads made impassable by never-before-seen flooding. We might have been supplied for a disaster, but a lot of us weren’t proud of how we handled the small stuff.

Although most of us were prepared to sit in a dark room and eat canned food until the storm blew over, we were caught short by unanticipated frustrations. Being ready for the worst apparently doesn’t prepare us for the minor and maddening. Once everything was back to normal, we may have felt a little shamefaced about how out-of-sorts we became. Our tension increased; our tempers shortened. If we reacted this badly to a dead battery, how would we handle a worst-case scenario?

Probably better. Conventional disaster-preparedness is geared toward avoiding injury and sustaining survival. But now our lives are much more complicated than when those advisories were originally issued. We may have checked off all the recommended disaster prep, but where was our mental first-aid? Our main anxiety in unpredictable storms like Matthew was not whether we would have enough to eat and drink until the National Guard arrived. Our main distress was about the discombobulation of nothing working as it should. We became disoriented by the sudden loss of our tools.

Modern tools include houses, roads, refrigerators, and televisions—things that make our lives easier. Todays’ tools are more like an extension of ourselves than a separate thing we use. The computer becomes an extension of the mind just as a hammer becomes an extension of our hand. The cellphone keeps our community close, so when it runs out of juice, we feel cut off and alone in a manner disproportionate to actual fact. Our innumerable electronic connections with the world strengthen our confidence and competence. Reliable tools, available power, and schedules support our present-day lifestyles. If these familiar aids fail us, we feel vulnerable and off-balance.

We’ve got the flashlights, but maybe we also need a good mindset to use when things are not working. If we understand that our brains need time to come to grips, we can give ourselves the space needed to sort out a response. Unfortunately, in our culture, perfect coping is supposed to be instantaneous and anxiety-free. But this is totally unrealistic. All of us need time to recover from the mini-shocks of disruption before we can figure out what to do. No need to pretend that we aren’t deeply affected. Of course we’re affected. We’re disrupted animals deprived of security.

Next time, let’s give ourselves room to react. While we are readying for a storm, let’s also get prepared for some anxiety and reactivity. If you plan for frustration and disorientation, it makes it easier for the brain to adjust. There’s no need to scold yourself if your calm was less than perfect. If the weather catches you by surprise, it’s more appropriate to define yourself as unprepared, not inadequate. Everything goes better when you lay off the self-criticism for not doing better under pressure. Sooner or later, you will catch up to circumstances.

As you replenish your hurricane supplies, be sure to keep a list for psychological readiness taped to the top of the batteries. In addition to having a box of non-electric diversions handy—such as games, puzzles, coloring books, and cards—prepare yourself by reading the following reminders before the next storm hits.

Confusion and anxiety are inevitable reactions. Allow yourself the occasional freak-out; it resets the mind. Unless you have to act immediately, walk away from the problem for a few minutes and get hold of yourself. Breathe deliberately. Make room to think. Give yourself time to get your head around the new situation. Remember that if you keep doing the next necessary step, everything will eventually be normal again. This won’t last forever. Remember what you are grateful for. Cut some slack for yourself and others. You’re good people in a stressful situation.

By reading these reminders, you will soothe your mind so it can work more smoothly. Stressing yourself is bad for your brain, so make sure your plan to be human is as handy as the first-aid kit.

Lindsay Gibson, Psy.D., is a clinical psychologist. For information, call 757-490-7811.

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