I live in Orlando and so I am sitting here looking at reports showing Irma’s path headed directly toward us. As I scan my social media news-feeds and talk to loved ones, it is clear that anxiety is high and coping skills are a must if we don’t want to end up losing a lot of sanity ground by the time this is all over. I thought it would be helpful to explore ways to maintain our mental/emotional health through this storm.
As soon as you figure out where you will spend the storm – in place, at a shelter, with friends or completely out of town – make a plan for maintaining good sleep, nutrition and exercise habits. These are the first things to go in circumstances like these…we eat junk food nonstop, barely move and sleep either too much or too little. It just happens because we get caught up in the urgency of the moments and/or the confusion of the aftermath. Make sure you have healthy food options on hand, figure out a reasonable sleep schedule you can stick to throughout your stay and brainstorm ways to get some movement in every day – whether it’s using the (non-electric) equipment you have in place, simple calisthenic movements like jumping jacks or adventure walks outside once the storm clears. Get on Pinterest now while you can to find workout ideas that will work with the circumstances you’re in.
Make sure you have resources and materials in place to manage your emotions. How do you think you will feel during this experience? What are the things you normally need when you feel like that? (Art supplies, journals, stress balls, stuffed animals, pets, etc.?) How can you adjust those strategies to your lock-down situation? When you are stressed, upset or overwhelmed, you will not have the mental resources to figure these things out. Do it now so you have a plan to express and manage your emotions. Here’s a worksheet you may find helpful:
This is not the time to play lone ranger. Reach out. Arrange to be with others throughout this experience if at all possible. Don’t assume that family is your only option if you know they drive you crazy on a regular day. Can you imagine being locked up with them for days in a stressful situation? Think about your social circle…Who are the healthiest people in your life? Gravitate to them first. Yes, take some time each day to be alone…to breathe and to think but make sure you stay connected to share your thoughts and feelings with others.
Finally, pay attention to what you expose your mind to. Limit time on social media if it is filled with folks in a frenzy. Watch the news/weather channel only long enough to hear time estimates of the storm’s approach. Do internet searches for any specific information you may need for your preparation efforts – rather than watching TV endlessly, waiting to learn “everything”. Avoid conversations with those who will only increase your stress and anxiety about this storm. Decide now what reasonable truths you need to focus on. Find resources that will align with those truths – write them down if you have to….whatever you have to do to ensure that what is coming at you repeatedly will be functional, encouraging and helpful!
“My loved one deals with anxiety – how can I be supportive?” It’s a frequent question as anxiety tops the list of common mental health issues in the US. When it comes to relationships, we want to love well, to actually be effective in our efforts to help but good intentions don’t always lead to good outcomes. Thankfully, there are some proven strategies for loving well in this situation.
First, let’s look at the ineffective methods:
- Telling your loved one to “just calm down” or “don’t worry about it”! “Well now, I hadn’t thought of that” says your love one….”let me get right on that.” Not! Seriously?! If it were that easy, this wouldn’t even be an issue. Such statements minimize the very real experiences and emotions of our loved ones, inspiring guilt and shame that feeds the anxiety even more.
- Over-spiritualizing the problem. “If you’d just give this to God, you’d feel a lot better”. Most faith traditions have scriptural encouragements about surrender and trusting one’s Higher Power. Of course, these are relevant concepts in regards to our thought life and what we choose to mentally focus on. However, anxiety has very real genetic and physiological roots that cannot be ignored. Expecting an instruction of “just pray about it” to fix the problem entirely makes about as much sense as telling that to someone having a heart attack. Prayer is ALWAYS important but for the love of all that is holy, the person having a heart attack also requires some additional actions to effectively address the issue! Anxiety (and any other illness for that matter) is no different.
- Guilt trips. Detailing all that your loved one has ruined for you with their anxiety, in hopes they will be motivated to change is not effective. Guilt and shame are horrible motivators. They may power the vehicle for a few miles, but they never go the distance.
- “Protecting” our loved one from their problems. Anxiety is only ever conquered through facing our fears with the proper support. Fixing things for our loved ones in order to protect them only feeds the anxiety by sending the message, “you can’t handle this – I’ll do it for you”. There’s nothing wrong with helping but we have to ensure that we take on tasks that free up our loved one to focus on their personal work instead of enabling them to avoid their fears.
- Assuming that what works for you will work for your loved one. If you struggle with anxiety as well, it can be easy to push the strategies you’ve found effective. It’s great to share your own experiences. At least, it’s so comforting to know you’re not alone. At best, maybe your suggestion will work. But then…maybe it won’t and that’s OK. Everyone is different so the answers vary for all.
So, what works?
- Asking your loved one about their anxiety (when they are feeling OK) with genuine curiosity that seeks to truly understand. The more you enter into your loved one’s story, the more you will intuitively love well because you have connected with their experiences and emotions. Even if you struggle to make sense of it all, your efforts are never wasted. If you stick with it, understanding builds and your inquiries demonstrate to your loved one that you care and are interested in their world.
- Asking about what is helpful. Not in general terms…be specific. “When is it better for you to have some space? When is it helpful to have someone by your side? Should I just sit with you or are there words that are helpful? Does a hug help or would touch make it worse?” This is not a one-time interrogation. It’s an ongoing conversation that again demonstrates your interest, helps your loved one explore their own needs and trains you in loving them well.
- Modeling a healthy lifestyle that values sleep, good nutrition and exercise. These are the number one “medicines” for anxiety (though prescriptions have their place too). Avoid the temptation to give advice in these areas. Instead, seek a healthy lifestyle yourself and invite them to join in specific aspects of it: cooking healthy meals, visiting restaurants with healthy menus, going for a walk at the local park, shutting down life at a reasonable hour, protecting the bedtime hour from over-stimulation, etc.
- Giving your loved one a safe space to verbalize their fears and concerns without judgment or “fixing”. It is so tempting to provide answers that we hope will change our loved one’s thinking but it simply does not work that way. Instead, we listen, again with a genuine curiosity that seeks to understand how they arrived at their conclusions. We ask questions that explore the evidence upon which their thoughts are based. We ask questions that explore alternative perspectives but we ask our questions without agenda…without the intent to lead them to the conclusions we want them to have. They must have the freedom to arrive at their own pace, and to wrestle with their thoughts. It is then more likely that they will ask for your perspective and at that point (not before), you can offer it to a heart that is actually open to hearing it.
- Praying for and with your loved one. In your prayers, take their fears seriously, present them to God and ask for comfort, support and strength. Use the same nonjudgmental approach before God as you do with your loved one. If God is who we say He is, then He can handle business without our directions.
- Finally, do your own work. Monitor your motivations. Do you find yourself wanting to fix or control “for their sake”? That must be addressed and counseling could be the way to do that. Pay attention to your boundaries – ensure you are not taking on so much that burnout is inevitable. Again, you may need support in addressing that. When all is said and done, live the change you want to see!