Feeling numb over another hurricane? Mental health experts have advice for Beaufort County

With eery flashbacks from Hurricane Matthew playing back in the minds of Beaufort County residents, Hurricane Irma poses a re-triggering of stress and panic.

Between wondering when to evacuate and finding a hotel hours away to making sure pets and children are safe, it’s easy to see how a situation like Hurricane Irma can snowball people to a point of mental breakdown.

Cindy Lahar, associate professor and program coordinator for psychology at University of South Carolina Beaufort, said that with Hurricane Matthew occurring less than a year ago and Irma on its way, stress is inevitable.

You’re trying to protect your personal things, trying to make plan for pets, children and self, and that alone is stressful, even if you have a good plan,” Lahar said. “It’s stressful to be out of your daily situations, to not know what will happen to your home.”

“Stress impacts us more strongly when its unpredictable, and of course, a storm of this magnitude and not knowing what will happen is a prime example.”

The build up of stress over many days and weeks can put a major toll on one’s body, she said.

“People are already asking ‘What’s your plan?’ or ‘Where you going?,’ so that stress is already high and built up day after day due to planning and seeing what has already happened in Caribbean. … That alone is activating our stress hormones. And experiencing that day after day can break down our immune systems.”

“Being outside our regular environments and now knowing what might happen puts people in a situation to likely get sick,” she added. “It’s hard for our bodies to cope physiologically.”

In order to stay calm, even in the most stressful situations such as Hurricane Irma evacuation, Lynn Geiger, a licensed clinical psychologist on Hilton Head Island, advises people to not stay glued to the television every minute of the day.

“You want to have episodes of problem solving —what to do, how to pack, where to go— but you also want to have moments of downtime — what should I make for dinner, when should I walk my dogs,” Geiger said.

For parents, Geiger recommends working to get things organized to ensure everyone is safe and talking with them about the forthcoming situation.

“You want to explain that you can’t predict the future but that you have hope that everything will turn out okay,” she said. “So the message is a realistic prescriptive while providing some hopefulness.”

Clinical psychologist Kelly Nicholson also added that many children show their stress in physical discomfort rather than mentally or vocally.

“They usually don’t have words to explain that they’re feeling anxiety, so it turns into physical issue. ‘I have a headache’ or ‘My stomach hurts’ are characteristics of anxiety in kids. They don’t understand the nature of anxiety, so it manifests physically.”

In the end, both Nicholson and Geiger recommend that residents stay focused on the present and try not to think in terms of the “what ifs.”

“Remember that we’re very resilient, not just as human beings, but as residents of the Hilton Head and Bluffton area,” Geiger said. “We bounce back and we know that we’ll figure it out as we have to.”

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