The anticipation of what may be the most severe weather event in the northeastern United States since 1903 looms heavy over the region in anxious wait. In fact, hours from now, the eye of Hurricane Sandy will be hovering over my New Jersey town after “she” slams into our nearby coast, approximately 50 miles due West. So, how could I not write about the tension in the air?
Excessive and irrational fears about the natural environment are common. Fears of thunder and lightening (astraphobia), rain (ombrophobia), and, yes, hurricanes or tornadoes (lilapsophobia), can cause significant distress. Unlike many of its situationally-based “cousins,” nature-based fears are essentially unavoidable, unpredictable (to a large extent), and imminent perceived threats to which the sufferer responds with physiological, cognitive, and emotional arousal. This internal activation is like an alarm being sounded (the fight-or-flight response) to alert the individual to perceived danger and prepare them, in body and mind, to effectively manage the problem. Whew! I’m exhausted just thinking about this process.
Yes, phobias and other excessive anxious states are exhausting. They tax an individual’s coping resources until the threat is gone or their resources are depleted. Phobic individuals attempt to decrease their subjective experience of anxiety by avoiding that which triggers their anxiety, which can be disruptive to their daily lives. Avoidance can further reinforce their fears and lead to a more generalized anticipatory anxiety around that which is feared and the feelings that accompany that level of distress. Thus, treatment can be critical to one’s quality of life.
The evidence-based literature regarding the treatment of phobias strongly concludes that exposure-based, behavioral therapy is THE current first-line, evidence-based practice. In fact, some studies have demonstrated the utility of as little as one session of treatment, while the standard course of treatment is 12-16 sessions. Exposure therapy involves the systematic, hierarchical exposure to that which is feared. In other words, the individual is exposed to the fear in a gradual way, exposing them to increasingly anxiety-provoking approximations and maintaining each exposure until the individual notices the anxiety peak and diminish – habituation. Through these learning experiences, the individual learns to respond to the stressor differently, with less arousal.
Exposure therapy is often accompanied by cognitive therapy, which is also well-supported by the scientific literature. With cognitive therapy, therapists explore the individual’s thoughts and beliefs and challenge their cognitive processes, aiding them in discovering and changing their unhelpful thoughts and mistaken beliefs to more realistic, adaptive cognitions.
With Hurricane Sandy on its way and many therapy offices (along with just about every other type of business) in the northeast closed for the next few days, many are left with unhelpful attempts to quell their fears. Here are a few tips to “weather the storm”:
- Change your unhelpful thoughts – We all have moments in which we increase our own anxiety by worrying about that which we cannot entirely control. These thoughts are often unrealistic, inaccurate, and/or unreasonable. Catch these thoughts. Think about how they affect you and change them to more realistic, adaptive thoughts. (When I begin to have a catastrophic thought, I question whether it is possible, likely, or unlikely and ask myself if I could manage the “worst case scenario.” I then try to restructure that thought to be more realistic).
- Practice acceptance – Engaging in uncontrollable worry is unhelpful in calming your anxious feelings and will not chase away the storm. Be prepared to a reasonable degree and then be present-focused. Liken your anxious thoughts to a peaceful wave of the ocean; let it come in and ride it out. (Now that we are as prepared as we will be, I aim to remain aware of our environment, but also observe this amazing occurrence of Mother Nature from the comfort of my home).
- Be in “the now” – Too much worry about what may or may not come and you will not be able to enjoy the present moment. So, schedule some time to plan for what is to come, but take in all that it your present moment and enjoy your “now.” (Yes, we bought flashlights and batteries like everyone else, but we also bought brownies to bake and new games for us and our kids to play during the storm)
- Take a deep breath – Practicing diaphragmatic breathing or other relaxation-inducing practice (progressive muscle relaxation, yoga, etc) can reduce stress by encouraging the physiological relaxation response (calming the autonomic nervous system and encouraging parasympathetic nervous system functioning).
- Behavioral activation – Take action. Prepare within reason for an anticipated stressor, then engage in an activity your enjoy or that is helpful to you in managing stress, such as watching a moving or reading a book. (Now that our outdoor furniture has been secured, I plan to run on the treadmill and take the opportunity to spend time with my family and watch this, perhaps historic, event). What will you do?
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