Note from Hands On Nashville: The following post, written by licensed professional counselor Samuel Rainey, originates on the Nashville Severe Weather website, and is a useful guide for folks who feel anxious when thinking about or experiencing storms. As we mark one year since the devastating March 3, 2020, tornados, many are feeling strong emotions, including anxiety, about potential severe spring weather. We hope this post helps provide some context and useful information about how to handle stress that’s connected to storm anxiety.
By Samuel Rainey via Nashville Severe Weather (shared with permission)
There’s a feeling it’s always storm season. I have a general appreciation for storms and a healthy respect about what they can do. Sometimes, my respect for the storms can make me feel a little crazy as I attempt to corral my wife and four kids into the tiny coat closet under our stairs. Each time we do this, I’m reminded of being 4 years old in my childhood home in Arkansas. A tornado was on its way, I’m in the bathtub with my siblings, and my parents have just put the twin mattress on top of us. It was a terrifying experience. Today, we don’t have room for a twin mattress, so I put bike helmets on my kids. My teenagers are especially appreciative of me when I make them put these on.
Most people I know have a strong reaction to storms. They either love them, or hate them. I think this is because storms remind us that we are small, fragile, and incredibly powerless. Despite some really bad movie plots about weather and storms, the bottom line is that there’s really nothing you or I can do about a storm. We can’t change the direction, alter the intensity, or tell it to stop producing dangerous results. To many of us, that is a really scary experience, even to the point of creating anxiety as a storm approaches.
Feeling anxious about storms is completely normal, and it doesn’t mean that anything is wrong with you. It’s natural to experience a wide range of emotions: from panic to stress to a general unease as a storm comes your way.
Stress limits the body’s production of serotonin (the happy, calming chemical). We all need serotonin to feel good, safe, and happy in life. Instead of serotonin, our body produces adrenaline. Adrenaline is the chemical that amps us up for survival, a fight, or to face a threat. Storms are a legit threat to our lives and our brains don’t really care if we’re happy or calm. Our brains think serotonin won’t save us, but adrenaline might. So we lose that happy, calming chemical, and end up on edge. Stressed.
Because we are small, fragile, and limited humans, we are deeply impacted by our surroundings. When a storm pops up, it can trigger significant feeling unsafe. At a basic level, our brain knows that when a storm is near, it has to gear our body up for a fight. Because of this, we’ve got to take care of ourselves so we can handle the incoming storms.
Three Strategies to Combat Storm Anxiety: Preparation, Process, and People
Fear is the feeling that there is danger near and that we need to do something about it. So prepare for the fear by assembling a storm kit you take with you to your “safe space” in your home. You might also consider putting a smaller kit in your car in the event a storm arises when you’re not at home. This storm kit will have everything you need before, during, and after a storm.
Your kit needs to have:
- Something nonperishable to eat (Twinkies don’t count)
- First aid (Band-Aids, Neosporin, etc.)
- A picture of loved ones
Optional items to include:
- Battery-operated handheld radio
- Cell phone batter recharger and cable
- Something to do/a project (a craft, knitting, drawing, bourbon tasting, Solitaire with a deck of cards, etc.)
- A weighted blanket: These work in the same way that a “thunder jacket” works with a dog, or how swaddling a baby makes them feel safe and secure. A weighted blanket helps provide external stimuli that can produce serotonin (the calming chemical).
When stress happens, we need a process to follow to calm us down. Developing a process to follow each time a storm arises will help you to move out of reactivity. A process will comfort you. Your process needs to become a habit you practice every time a storm comes. This routine will help you trust in something other than the “impending doom” of the storm. You’ll have a process to comfort you.
Some processes to follow:
- Put your storm preparation kit in an accessible place near your safe room.
- Limit information intake: Smartphones are great for information, but sometimes too much information is actually more stressful. Flooding our mind with too much information can heighten the feelings of anxiety. Pick one or two sources of information to follow. Watch local TV or reliable social-media feeds.
- Do something along with watching the weather feed. (Projects listed above)
- Gratitude Jar: At the end of each severe weather threat you encounter, get a notecard and write down the date, time, and experience you had in this particular storm. Get a Ziploc bag and deposit the notecard in the bag. We are going to call this your victory bag. In the future when a storm is near and you’re getting nervous or afraid, get your kit (below), open the victory bag, and read through all of the storms that you’ve not just survived, but thrived. This will be a process for you to remember that you are ok.
Remember, storms do their thing, and we need to do our thing. Experiment with some processes to follow and find what works for you.
This is the most important of the three strategies: we need people in our lives. We need people not just when weather happens, but when other emotional storms show up in our lives. One of my favorite authors, Frederick Buechner, says this, “Welcome to the world, where beautiful and terrible things will happen.”
We’re not made to deal with the beautiful and terrible things on our own. This is the reason why Tom Hanks’ character in the movie “Cast Away” creates a friend out of a volleyball. He can’t live in isolation on that island. From an existential standpoint, anxiety is about being isolated. At some level we all fear being left, abandoned, betrayed, or alone by ourselves. Nervousness and worry come from a legitimate fear we have that has not been taken care of. Fears are natural to being human, and when we don’t tend to the needs associated with our fears, they can transform into life controlling worry, and sometimes even anxiety.
The single best way to help combat storm anxiety is to be known. To be with other people. Surround yourself with people who you can care about, and who care about you. If you live alone, call someone or get on a video call with them. We are better equipped to handle difficult situations when we know that someone else is with us to face the danger. It’s amazing what happens to our stress when someone who cares about us holds our hand or gives us a reassuring hug.
It might be that your storm anxiety is alerting you to your need to have more people involved in the difficulties of your life. Growth is a relational experience. We don’t grow in isolation; we grow because of relationships.
Following these three strategies won’t solve all your storm related problems, but they are a great next step for you to take. If you only do one of the three above ideas, please invite people into your life. I know of no better way to reduce my own situational anxiety than having someone help me carry the burden I’m facing.
Lastly, if you find that this anxiety you’re experiencing happens in other places of your life (work, relationships, making decisions, etc.) then it might be helpful to talk to a professional counselor about that.
Follow Nashville Severe Weather on Twitter: @NashSevereWx.