The first time I realized there was anything good about having anxiety I was reading the work of Dr. Albert Ellis, one of the founders of cognitive therapy. Ellis put it very simply: “anxiety has a purpose. It keeps you safe.” Ellis was right. Anxiety keeps you from getting too close to a cliff, from driving in the wrong direction on a one way street and from walking on electric power lines when a major storm brings them down.
Until reading Ellis, I’d always thought my anxiety was a big nuisance, causing me to be afraid to go on amusement park rides, play high school football or get on an airplane. But Ellis, and more recently, Hurricane SANDY, helped me see the importance of being anxious.
As the warnings for Hurricane Sandy became more and more dire, I noticed:
Anxiety motivated me to fill large containers with water, in case we lost power (which we did), anxiety motivated me to get $500 cash in case the phone lines went down and you couldn’t use credit cards (which we needed). Anxiety motivated me to top off the gas tanks of all my cars in case there was a shortage of gas (which there was). Anxiety motivated me to stock up on water and food in case we couldn’t get out of our house (which turned out to be the case). Anxiety got me ready for a storm that turned out to be as bad or worse as every prognosticator had stated it would be.
I recently read an article in the New York Times about a low-lying neighborhood in Staten Island, NY where eight people died. It was the highest concentration of deaths in the entire path of the Hurricane Sandy. Ironically, in both Hurricane Irene, which rolled through last year, and another really bad storm, back in December 1992 people in this neighborhood apparently survived with only minor damages. And these two near-misses seemed to have given some of the residents in this neighborhood a false sense of security that Sandy would be a near-miss as well.
Back in 1992, my family and I lived in one of these low lying neighborhoods near the water in Norwalk, CT. And in that flood, our house had over a foot of water on the first floor. I’ll never forget the sound that it made when the water started to bubble up from underneath the floor and gradually engulf the entire first floor.
Every storm threat since 92 had the potential to completely stress me out. My residual anxiety, (a little like PTSD, only milder) ultimately changed how I saw the threats from that ‘92 storm forward. My nervous system, (already prone to anxiety) now was super sensitized to even the possibility of a flood. And we know that this happens because the hippocampus, which is the part of the brain that holds emotionally charged memories, wants us to REMEMBER the things that are potentially dangerous or harmful.
So I had to learn how to manage my anxiety and sort out what threats were mostly hype and what threats weren’t. One of the things that I learned during the roughly 20 years that we stayed in that neighborhood was how to be your own weather person: You had to consider the source of your information (a for-profit institution like a news station – that is trying to increase viewership - or a non-profit entity like the national weather service) and you had to make certain judgments about other weather-related information and even watch for certain signs and signals yourself.
For example, Hurricane Sandy was hitting at a time when tides are historically the highest ALL YEAR. Knowing this made the threat more real. The fact that it would be hitting during a full moon added to everyone’s concern. And the sign that you could see yourself (and we saw this in 1992 as well) was that the tides were flooding the low lying streets in those low-lying areas DAYS before the storm actually hit.
So I had to be careful not to let my tendency toward anxiety cause me to OVER-REACT to the hype and the drama, around EVERY major storm between 1992 and 2012. I worked with my anxiety before every storm: Trying to notice the difference between how I felt inside vs. what I was hearing from outside sources, including neighbors who had their own, mostly hidden, issues with anxiety.
When Sandy came, even though we had already moved out of that low lying area, I knew the threat was very real based on my intellectual assessment of the evidence that I’d carefully collected from a variety of sources. In other words, I didn’t always TRUST my feelings of anxiety since they were pretty much automatic. But what I did trust, was my feelings of anxiety PLUS the news that I was hearing from reliable sources about this storm.
Even though we were on high ground for Sandy, and in no danger of flooding, we had to be concerned about falling trees and power lines. Ultimately we lost our power, running water, and heat for six days and our access to the outside world completely blocked for three days by fallen trees and downed power lines. But we were well prepared, and did just fine, thanks to some HEALTHY anxiety that DID ultimately keep us safe.