From the moment I first heard Hurricane Harvey was headed toward the Texas coast and could hit Houston until now, it has been an exercise in practicing what I preach. Through the anticipation, storm, and aftermath, I’ve used the tools I teach in my practice to keep myself (mostly!) sane.
Stress Management—controlling what I could
Few things are more stressful than natural disasters. They are unpredictable, often happen with little notice or time for preparation, and feel completely out of our control. For this reason, I often use the “hurricane example” when teaching stress management techniques—particularly the importance of differentiating what you can and cannot control, making a plan to control what you can, and coping with the emotions of what you can’t.
This has been, and will be, a continual process. When we first received news of the storm, my husband and I controlled what we could by stocking up on supplies and filling our gas tanks immediately, as well as making sure others were aware of the storm so they could prepare however they chose to. Like many others in Houston and the surrounding areas, we believed ourselves to be in a safe area, so we chose to stay home and not clog the roads for others who needed to evacuate. Despite our belief that we were unlikely to flood, the intensity of the storm was concerning, so we continually monitored the forecast and our property. When the news came that our neighborhood was likely to flood, we moved as much as we could to higher ground and evacuated our family to a safer area. When the rain subsided, we continued to control what we could despite having been flooded with about 4 inches of rain in our house. We minimized the damage by clearing the house of flooded materials as soon as it was safe to do so, asking for help, sharing our feelings, filing claims quickly, etc.
Emotion Regulation—coping with the emotions of what I can’t control
The city of Houston and the surrounding areas are still reeling from the impact of Harvey, much of which was out of our control. Even if your property was not damaged, you are likely experiencing a lot of strong emotions related to the storm, and it can be hard to know how to cope with them. There are several things I’ve found helpful through this process.
Downtime and Self Care
Between checking weather forecasts and taking actions to try to reduce the risk of flooding in our house, we did our best to get some downtime and take care of ourselves by watching our favorite TV shows, playing games, playing with our son, and making sure to eat and sleep.
At its most basic level, mindfulness involves being present in the current moment without judgment. I’ll admit, this has been tricky for me. For several days I was obsessed with my neighborhood Facebook group as a source of information about my house and accessing help. I was mindful that this was bordering on obsessing rather than controlling what I could or getting social support, which sometimes helped me to move away from it and engage in other activities, but sometimes not for long. I was aware that I wasn’t always fully present during conversations or when playing with my son and would try to bring myself back to the present moment. I tried not to judge myself for getting distracted. Even being aware that you’re getting distracted and redirecting yourself to the present without getting upset about it is a form of being mindful.
Acknowledging and Accepting my emotions
I’m heartbroken for my city and its people. I’m sad for myself and my neighbors. I’m scared something will happen again before we’ve recovered. I could go on, but I won’t. The point is that I am willing to acknowledge these feelings and to allow myself to feel them. I give myself permission to feel sad, scared, etc. and see it as a sign of my humanity and not as a problem, as long as these emotions don’t keep me from functioning. Sometimes I let myself cry, but not all the time.
My goal in coping with my emotions is not to get rid of them, but to keep them at a manageable level. If I felt too happy and at ease during this time I might not do the things I need to do for my family or for others in need. By acknowledging, accepting, and experiencing my emotions, I can use them as information to motivate me to action and see them as a sign of empathy and compassion for myself as well as others.
Getting Social Support and Accepting Help
Keeping friends and family updated, and getting updates from them, has been a way to control what I can as well as get support for dealing with this difficult time. I rarely post on social media, but have found it a helpful and convenient way to keep friends and family updated on our status as well as to get emotional support—it helps to see that people care.
I’ve discovered that our neighborhood has a Facebook group and have started connecting with people on there. This group has been great for accessing help and practical support, and I hope that I will get closer to others in my community through this process. So many people have come out to help with the cleanup process, both through neighborhood support and other groups, it has been truly amazing. I’d be lost if it weren’t for the practical help we’ve gotten.
Perspective and Finding Things to be Thankful for
As hard as this has been, I’ve found many things to be thankful for. While many people weathered Harvey better than my family, many also fared worse. After hearing my house was predicted to get about 5 feet of water, I was relieved to find out it got much less. It’s a matter of perspective, and I’m thankful things aren’t worse, because they could be, and for some people they are. But even for those people, there are things to be thankful for. No doubt there have been losses—many of them—but most of us are still alive. The rain has stopped for now. The water is receding in many areas. The way the city has come together to help those in need and the outpouring of generosity and compassion has been heart-warming. For these things, and many more, I’m thankful, and that helps keep me from getting too bogged down with the sadness and loss.
The road to recovery for the Houston area will be long, and the process of coping with the emotions will be an ongoing one. I will continue to use these steps to cope with the loss, and see the beauty that has accompanied this tragedy. If you practice some of these things, I know you can too. If I can be of any help, whether it’s advice, to talk through loss, or just someone to hear your thoughts please don’t hesitate to reach out. In some way we are all sharing in this loss, and it is important to talk about it.