How to deal with anxiety about natural disasters
The mental health effects of severe weather are very real, but you can learn to manage them.
Last year during Hurricane Ida, my whole city — New Orleans — effectively shut down for weeks. I evacuated, missed work, and had property damage. But aside from the logistical problems, it was also emotionally catastrophic. I was traveling with another trans person and my pets, and we faced harassment basically everywhere we went. The only place we could find to house us was a truly horrific AirBnB that was covered in rat shit. Plus, the owner drove the price up once he realized we had no other place to go, so in addition to being uprooted and scared, I was also feeling pretty hopeless about humanity. I was a mess.
Storm season is upon us again, and every time it rains, I spiral into catastrophizing. Given that summer in New Orleans means daily thunderstorms, I’m constantly triggered. I know I’m not alone; natural disasters can lead to lasting mental health effects, including PTSD, depression, and anxiety.
While this used to be a problem facing a relatively small population, thanks to climate change, extreme weather is becoming increasingly frequent and widespread. Now, basically every U.S. region faces storm threats of epic proportions, including hurricanes, wildfires, tornadoes, and severe heat waves and snowstorms.
Look, I'm not new here; I have batteries, water, and a packed go bag on hand, but the real question is: How do I prepare mentally and stop freaking out? I asked a psychologist to help me figure out how we can all deal with the emotional reality of storm seasons and extreme weather.
Get well-acquainted with your safety plan
First things first — you need a plan. I probably don’t need to explain to you why it’s important to have clean drinking water and some granola bars on hand, but planning isn’t about hoarding resources (don’t do that). It can also be a way to get a handle on your emotional state. “I always encourage patients to have safety plans in situations that may be triggering for them,” says Stephanie Freitag, a clinical psychologist in New York.
Figuring out logistics in advance is smart on a practical level, and the process of walking through a plan can also help you confront your fears before you’re triggered by them. As Freitag explains, planning is a way of dealing with the reality of re-experiencing trauma through various triggers. The truth is that a storm might come, and you might be triggered by it — but really thinking through and visualizing the scenario in advance may help minimize anxiety stemming from both the anticipation and the actual event.
Expect some uncertainty
That said, there is no one-size-fits-all approach to disaster preparedness. In general, you need to make sure your basic needs for food, water, and shelter will be met — but maintaining a level of flexibility when it comes to the details will help you deal with uncertainty. “Plans should be balanced in terms of what you can control while also relinquishing what you can't,” Freitag says. If you only envision things happening exactly as you planned them, it will be that much harder to adapt to new obstacles and changes as they come in the moment. Expect that some issues may arise that you didn’t prepare for, so you’re not shocked or completely thrown when that happens.
Prepare with your community
Dealing with the level of uncertainty that comes with climate disaster is daunting, though, so you shouldn’t do it alone. Prepping with people you care about — and who may be in similar situations — gives you a chance to collaborate, process emotions, contextualize your own experience, and allocate resources. If you talk to others about their storm experiences and plans, you’re bound to find you have a lot in common — but you also may have access to different resources that you can share. Taking a collaborative approach means that no one has to go it alone, emotionally and resource-wise.
The reality is that storm prep can be expensive if you try to make your home into an impenetrable fortress. Generators and fancy water filtration systems are expensive, but not every single person needs those things. We can share. Initiating a conversation in your community allows everyone to resource more effectively, and working with other folks can also help keep things in perspective.
For example, I often evacuate before the city tells me to — but my partner, author of Floodlines: Community and Resistance from Katrina to the Jena Six Jordan Flaherty, never leaves New Orleans. It’s hard for me to argue with him about it, given his book is about how communities in New Orleans organized in the aftermath of Katrina. Talking to him about storm prep helps me remember that weathering disaster is about more than just me. “People talk about hurricanes as though everyone is equally vulnerable, but they reveal and heighten unequal social dynamics and oppressions,” he says.
Share your resources
As you’re gearing up for a storm, don’t forget that your unique intersection of privilege — or lack thereof — will likely determine how vulnerable to disaster you actually are. This is not just a political idea; it is a literal fact and the basis for calls for climate justice. People with more social privilege are more likely to have the resources they need to get through an emergency. So, you’re not the only person you need to think about when planning for a potential disaster. Flaherty says people should consider two important factors as they make a disaster plan: “Are other people going to need to rescue you? Do you have anything to contribute to others?”
Planning to be an active contributor to post-storm mutual aid could also help you cope emotionally. “This is where community-organizing is super important,” Freitag says. “It's disturbing and unfortunate that our government consistently fails people without resources, but grassroots organizing seems to be the only way to confront it.” It’s crucial to crowd-share resources and planning strategies, so people can rely on each other in times of need, Freitag says.
“In times when we have been more isolated and alienated by social media, and the ramifications of capitalism create inequity, it's more important than ever to build community,” Freitag says, noting the truth behind the saying, “It takes a village.” Humans were never set up to figure out everything on their own. “We are inherently social and interdependent beings,” she says.
In fact, isolation is actually the biggest threat to our emotional wellbeing. “We really need to work together socially and share resources to create greater equity and harmony as a way of fighting against this growing tide of alienation,” Freitag says. So, if like me, you’re kind of freaking out about storm season, it’s time to get together with your village and talk it out.