Mind Matters — Storms In and Out

By the time this column “goes to press,” Frankenstorm Sandy will have done her play with us and we will be picking up the pieces from our various sandboxes. I “file this report” from a Red Cross shelter at Avon Grove High School where I am a Mental Health volunteer.

The night before I trekked here also, but I admit that I was anxious about how bad the drive would be and wondered what the situation at the shelter portended. How many clients? Who would I be working with? Suffice it to say, I was not centered, or “grounded” and I was tired to boot. Nevertheless, I thought I was being “smart” to “top off my gas tank” and stopped to do so on the way to the shelter. But as I pulled away from the gas station, frustrated because the pump was not working, I turned my car into a curb and blew the tire, basically destroying it! Wakeup call!

“Kayta,” I say to self, “calm down.” You’re supposed to be centered in the storm. Follow your own advice and breathe! Abdominal breath, count! Then call AAA and husband too!” Fortunately, I was close to home and my spouse and tow truck guy arrived soon and simultaneously. And they were both kind and understanding! So I traded cars with my partner and do-si-do’d down the road.

My incident reminded me of a story I heard from a FEMA presenter years ago regarding disaster mental health. Diane Myers related how she too could get anxious working in disaster situations. She would carry notebook with her at all times. If she misplaced the notebook, it was her sign that she needed to go sit and settle down. Once her notebook walked off somehow just as she walked into a shelter. She walked back out and calmed herself down.

Point is, we all can get rattled. It is just a matter of recognizing the anxiety and taking time to self soothe—using our ways to emotionally regulate. Breathing, finding our feet on the ground, counting our breaths in and out slowly, having an affirmation to silently say—“calm, centered, focused,” “I can calm myself,” “I’m going to be okay.”

Anxiety is a part of life, hurricane or no. What is most important is to find our own ballast in any emotional storm. It’s amazing how we think more clearly, speak more carefully, make wiser choices, when we learn to calm ourselves. As parents, this is not only helpful in dealing with the stress of raising children, but also gives them a wonderful role model in how to cope in life. When we are anxious, our children are as well: they are our emotional barometers.

Of course, there are times when it feels nigh on impossible to soothe ourselves. Alcoholics Anonymous advises to be aware of the occasions for relapse into drinking. The acronym that AA uses is HALT—hungry, angry, lonely, tired. I would two “S’s,” sick and stressed, transforming the acronym into SHALTS! “SHALTS” are the red flags, the warning signals indicating the need for some selfcare.