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Undercurrents: September Summons Storm Jitters

A regular Source feature, Undercurrents explores issues, ideas and events as they develop beneath the surface in the Virgin Islands community.

Feeling a bit “on edge” these days? You aren’t alone.

If you live in a Caribbean region prone to tropical cyclones, September may find you with an occasional tenseness in your muscles, a tightening in your throat, or maybe a funny feeling in the pit of your stomach. It’s just a little teasing of fear.

“It’s very much a phenomenon, especially for those people who have been previously traumatized by a hurricane,” said St. Thomas psychologist Dr. Ann Barnard.

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We like to tell ourselves that bad experiences make us strong, she said, but the truth is, “these are searing human experiences and they leave us more vulnerable … Once you’ve been through it, it’s with you for life.”

The two storms to do the most physical damage in recent memory– Hurricane Hugo in 1989 and Hurricane Marilyn in 1995 – are widely believed to have done the most psychological damage as well. Stories abound of residents sheltering in crawl spaces, bathtubs, and kitchen cabinets, for eight or 12 hours while their homes were blown apart around them.

In general, “the way we stay sane is to believe we are in control,” said psychologist Dr. Dianne Brinker. “Hurricanes are just the epitome of loss of control.”

They create a feeling of helplessness, Barnard said.

Brinker shared some of her own storm experiences, including living in a building’s one surviving room with several other people and an assortment of pets for a long time after Hugo. She was pregnant and very hungry, but it was difficult to find food on the island.

“When I remember that I just get sick.”

Like many others, she spent months without electricity. Now, “if the power goes out even for a little while, I get so depressed, because it brings back flashes” of life in the aftermath, she said.

Brinker’s experience makes it easy to recognize symptoms in others.

“I do have people coming to see me who have this phobia,” of storms, she said. In severe cases it’s like the post traumatic stress disorder that can affect soldiers after battle.

More commonly, she and Barnard said, it manifests itself just as a heightened anxiety.

Some people are “hyper-alert to cloudy skies, to gusts of wind, to any signs or reminders of a hurricane,” Barnard said. Even seeing a crowd of people in a store can remind them of residents preparing for an incoming storm and make them nervous.

Some people pretty much stay nervous for the length of hurricane season, or its historically most active time, late summer through fall. Others, Brinker said, only get upset when it appears a storm is headed toward the Virgin Islands.

Unlike many traumatic experiences that tend to fade over time, the fear of hurricanes doesn’t fade “because we re-live it every year,” she said. That’s why a few residents who have the resources actually leave the territory at the height of the season – generally all of September – every year.

Fortunately, for those who must stay, there are ways to cope. Brinker said she advises people to be well prepared. She takes her own advice, putting up shutters and stocking supplies at the beginning of season, rather than waiting for a storm to appear on the Weather Channel or an Internet weather map. Preparation goes a long way towards restoring the sense of control.

And for some patients, she recommends the same type of calming techniques that work for other anxieties – things like deep breathing, deep muscle exercise and relaxation, and mental imagery of a pleasant and secure place.

But nothing beats a quiet season for calming the jitters.

“What I see (in patients) is the anticipation,” said St. Thomas psychologist Dr. Ramona Moss. “It’s a pretty good season so far, so I’m not seeing much anxiety.”

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A regular Source feature, Undercurrents explores issues, ideas and events as they develop beneath the surface in the Virgin Islands community. Feeling a bit “on edge” these days? You aren’t alone. If you live in a Caribbean region prone to tropical cyclones, September may find you with an occasional tenseness in your muscles, a tightening in your throat, or maybe a funny feeling in the pit of your stomach. It’s just a little teasing of fear. “It’s very much a phenomenon, especially for those people who have been previously traumatized by a hurricane,” said St. Thomas psychologist Dr. Ann Barnard. We like to tell ourselves that bad experiences make us strong, she said, but the truth is, “these are searing human experiences and they leave us more vulnerable … Once you’ve been through it, it’s with you for life.” The two storms to do the most physical damage in recent memory– Hurricane Hugo in 1989 and Hurricane Marilyn in 1995 – are widely believed to have done the most psychological damage as well. Stories abound of residents sheltering in crawl spaces, bathtubs, and kitchen cabinets, for eight or 12 hours while their homes were blown apart around them. In general, “the way we stay sane is to believe we are in control,” said psychologist Dr. Dianne Brinker. “Hurricanes are just the epitome of loss of control.” They create a feeling of helplessness, Barnard said. Brinker shared some of her own storm experiences, including living in a building’s one surviving room with several other people and an assortment of pets for a long time after Hugo. She was pregnant and very hungry, but it was difficult to find food on the island. “When I remember that I just get sick.” Like many others, she spent months without electricity. Now, “if the power goes out even for a little while, I get so depressed, because it brings back flashes” of life in the aftermath, she said. Brinker’s experience makes it easy to recognize symptoms in others. “I do have people coming to see me who have this phobia,” of storms, she said. In severe cases it’s like the post traumatic stress disorder that can affect soldiers after battle. More commonly, she and Barnard said, it manifests itself just as a heightened anxiety. Some people are “hyper-alert to cloudy skies, to gusts of wind, to any signs or reminders of a hurricane,” Barnard said. Even seeing a crowd of people in a store can remind them of residents preparing for an incoming storm and make them nervous. Some people pretty much stay nervous for the length of hurricane season, or its historically most active time, late summer through fall. Others, Brinker said, only get upset when it appears a storm is headed toward the Virgin Islands. Unlike many traumatic experiences that tend to fade over time, the fear of hurricanes doesn’t fade “because we re-live it every year,” she said. That’s why a few residents who have the resources actually leave the territory at the height of the season – generally all of September – every year. Fortunately, for those who must stay, there are ways to cope. Brinker said she advises people to be well prepared. She takes her own advice, putting up shutters and stocking supplies at the beginning of season, rather than waiting for a storm to appear on the Weather Channel or an Internet weather map. Preparation goes a long way towards restoring the sense of control. And for some patients, she recommends the same type of calming techniques that work for other anxieties – things like deep breathing, deep muscle exercise and relaxation, and mental imagery of a pleasant and secure place. But nothing beats a quiet season for calming the jitters. “What I see (in patients) is the anticipation,” said St. Thomas psychologist Dr. Ramona Moss. “It’s a pretty good season so far, so I’m not seeing much anxiety.”