As I wait for Hurricane Dorian’s arrival and observe the “cone of uncertainty” about where it will land, I’ve been wondering if there’s such a thing as “anticipatory trauma.” So, when the going gets tough I go googling. My research shows that anticipatory trauma is indeed real.
“One writer has said[i]some people are already experiencing the fallout [of the impact of climate change] – in the form of what’s being called pre-traumatic stress reactions.”
Coincidentally (or not), while writing this article, I received a link to a Ted Talk by science writer Britt Wray, on how climate change affects our mental health: https://www.ted.com/talks/britt_wray_how_climate_change_affects_your_mental_health
Wray notes that that “we …need our actions and policies [regarding climate change] to reflect an understanding of how our changing environments threaten our mental, social and spiritual well-being.” Wray says some of the psychological effects of climate change include anxiety, grief, depression, increased PTSD and existential distress. She also includes pre-traumatic stress in the list.
As a trauma therapist, I have come to understand that the brain acts like a binary computer. It links different experiences together as if they were the same and creates what I call “knots of association.” For example, my brain has now linked Hurricane Dorian with Hurricane Irma and all the memories I have of that powerful storm two years ago.
I remind myself that “This is not that” as I untie those knots of association. In fact, in remembering that this is not that, I recall positive memories of my volunteer work in a hurricane shelter with those left homeless by Irma’s destruction. I remember their remarkable resilience, optimism and strength. I learned that their resilience came from caring for each other, rather than isolating themselves in despondency and despair. (See my blog article “Resilience in a Hurricane Shelter” for more of what I learned: https://bethspatterson.com/resilience/).
I have offered my “mantra” that this is not that to others experiencing anticipatory trauma. Here are some other tips that may help as we grapple with hurricanes and other environmental disasters:
- Practice self-compassion. It doesn’t help to judge yourself for your reactions.
- Focus your attention on your body instead of your thoughts. For example:
- Inhale deeply through your nose, from your diaphragm to your collar bone. Then exhale slowly through your mouth. Imagine cool, nourishing air coming in through your nose as you inhale, and warm, stale air leaving as you exhale.
- Place one hand on your heart center and the other on your solar plexus, Notice the rise and fall of your torso, as you feel the connection between these two chakras or energy centers.
- When disturbing thoughts and images arise, simply notice them and return your attention to your breath and body.
- Become an activist to bring attention to climate change or other issues that may have a negative impact on your wellbeing.
- Volunteer your time to help those impacted by natural disasters.
- Journal about your feelings. This helps get those swirling thoughts out of your head and so they become more workable.
Most importantly, avoid any tendency to isolate yourself. You are not alone in feeling distress and anxiety about the “cone of uncertainty” as we await Hurricane Dorian’s arrival.
[i]S. Colino, “Fearing the Future: Pre-Traumatic Stress Reactions,” US News, May 24. 2017.
© 2019 Beth S. Patterson. All rights reserved.