Hurricanes, Natural Disasters and Anticipatory Anxiety

From the desk of Dr. Jonathan Lasson

Dr. Jonathan Lasson was recently shopping at the grocery store when he overheard two women discussing the upcoming hurricane. “Florence is coming. Better stock up on water,” one woman said. “We live in Maryland. It’s not coming anywhere close to here,” replied the other woman. “Well I am still nervous, and I am stocking up.”

Overhearing this conversation in the grocery store reminded Dr. Lasson, how different people approach possible disasters. Not just natural disasters but interpersonal situations where the fear of the unknown is far greater than the fear itself. This, Dr. Lasson says, is was is termed as anticipatory anxiety. Anticipatory anxiety is where a person experiences increased levels of anxiety just by thinking about a future event of experience. While some have a nonchalant attitude and do not subject themselves to this type of irrational fear, others become debilitated by this type of anxiety to the extent that is renders them dysfunctional.

Consider a non-natural disaster experience. Jane is applying for a job and begins to develop palpitations and tremors whenever she thinks about her upcoming interview. Instead of approaching the interview with excitement and enjoying the challenge of a possible new opportunity, Jane adopts a ‘gloom and doom’ approach and cancels her interview. Christine, on the other hand is actually looking forward to the opportunity and sleeps very well the night before her interview. Two people. Two entirely different approaches.

Dr. Lasson likes to apply this to children as well. It is well known, he states, that children will often misinterpret the physical symptoms of anxiety in anticipation of an assignment, test or meeting a new friend and may end of developing mild physical symptoms such as stomachaches and headaches in anticipation of the unknown. We probably know these children. These are the types of children who do not like surprises. They want to know the schedule well in advance. Other children might go with the flow and not develop any of these symptoms. They simply approach each day by living in the present. How do they do this?

Children, Dr, Lasson says, learn by observation. If they see their parent or parents panicking before a storm that may or may not hit, they will observe the anxiety of their parents and incorporate it into their own mental framework. In other words, they will see it as perfectly normal to ‘freak out’ when confronting the unknown. These parents usually have difficulty enjoying the present and instead, worry about the future. When children grow up around such parents, where everything seems to revolve around “what else could possibly happen?”, they are missing out on life. Children need to observe their parents living in the present and looking forward to the future.

So, when Hurricane Florence makes landfall, these nonchalant, present-oriented children will look forward to playing with their parents and friends instead of worrying ‘what could possibly go wrong next’.

Dr. Lasson recommends that parents listen to their children as they discuss their fears but quickly redirect them to a fun, planned activity that their children will be excited about. It is far more intuitive for parents to be present with their children and to not wear their anxiety on their sleeves. It is obviously easier said than done. Adults are more difficult to change than children. They will resign themselves to saying, “this is just who I am”. This is a fatalistic approach. Schools are an excellent place to teach this lesson when in is not being taught or modeled at home. Teachers and school psychologists can teach children to be excited about what is to come. If they model this behavior, children will be able to face challenges with a greater sense of confidence and resilience.

If you are suffering from anticipatory anxiety, therapists can be great resources to help you develop a healthier approach to living in the present.

Dr. Jonathan M. Lasson is a certified school psychologist, writer and speaker who lectures frequently to parents and teachers about school related issues.