How one hurricane survivor copes with her anxiety
When I spotted Doris and Lionel across the shelter, sitting on their cots smiling and laughing, I thought, now there’s a story to tell. Today was my first day volunteering in public affairs for the American Red Cross Hurricane Harvey relief in Texas, and talking with two people as cheerful as the two of them would be a great start to my two-week deployment. How were they so cheerful during such a overwhelming time? I’d soon find out, and walk away with an awesome exercise to help with anxiety.
After speaking with them for a while, I learned they’ve been married for 55 years because according to Doris she “snagged him when he came to Ohio to go to school.” They live in Port Arthur, a city that historically hasn’t flooded, and just a few years ago had hand laid new wood floors in their home that were submerged in at least two feet of flood waters within a matter of hours. They were struck by the shock of it all as they watched their ice box float across their living room. I will never forget that visual.
They were rescued by a boat, which docked at their front door. “When I looked outside, I couldn’t see my four foot perimeter fence, just the top of the mail box,” said Lionel. Like most people in this area of Texas, they were blindsided and did not have flood insurance. “People’s lives are on the side of the road. People’s lives,” Lionel told me, speaking of the unthinkable piles of furniture, drywall, appliances and wood siding gutted from homes, lining neighborhood roads, that would soon see for myself.
Despite all this and the second disaster they had waiting for them when they got home (because the hurricane is only the first part, then comes recovery and rebuilding), they seemed like the only people in the 200 person shelter smiling and laughing. That is, until we joined them. Now there were at least five people laughing. I pointed this out to Doris, how they both were so cheerful and taking everything in stride, and she said, “People keep saying that to me and I don’t even realize I’m doing it.”
Then the concerned, overwhelmed and stressed woman surfaced. Doris became serious and pulled out her notebook, with line after line filled with her beautiful cursive handwriting. “I want to show you something,” she said, as if sharing a secret. Perhaps, I thought, the secret to her composure and positive outlook.
I sat next to Doris and she began to explain what she does when the thoughts begin to run rampant. This exercise is so ingenious and easy to do anywhere; I just have to share it. Heck, it could be a daily routine to help clear your mind. It’s not the only key to her smiles. She and her husband are a great support to each other. But this exercise is what Doris does on her own, which in turn is a positive thing for both her and Lionel.
First, grab some paper and a thing to write with
Doris happened to have a notebook and a pen, but we can’t count on this. Especially if you’ve been displaced and lost everything. I’m surprised even she had these items. Hopefully you have something with you, but if not grab a flyer, a magazine, a napkin, a paper cup. Sky’s the limit. And if all you have are crayons to write with, or an old chewed up pen, all good. No judgment here. The action of writing is key. Try to resist typing or texting the info.
Write down a phrase or a word at the top
The phrase you choose really doesn’t matter so much, but if it’s comforting to you there’s an added bonus to the exercise. Doris writes down the names of people she meets, a phrase she overheard from someone talking nearby, or a comforting string of words, such as the phrase she showed to me: “God has control over Hurricane Harvey.” As you can see, her phrase is chosen purposely to help her let go of the anger and frustration that comes with losing one’s home.
If I found myself in Dori’s situation, I may have written something like, “Steve Carell makes me laugh,” or “I am stronger than the storm,” or “Shindig” or “I love shoes.” It doesn’t have to be long, and you may prefer writing a string of words that aren’t even connected. Up to you. I suggest selecting words that have many different letters so that you’re not coming across the same letter over and over again. Like, don’t choose the word bubbles, unless you really like “B” words. Definitely don’t choose “Neener-neener,” unless it makes you laugh. Too repetitive. Don’t do that to yourself. You’ll make yourself feel even more crazy. The point is to relax your mind and calm your emotions.
Draw columns down the page
Make the columns wide enough for you to write down the average word in your own handwriting. You’re not making a column per word, or per letter. Just make semi-evenly spaced columns that give you a comfortable space to write. They don’t even have to be straight. I always think I’m drawing straight columns, and then I look at the page and think, “What’s wrong with me? They’re practically diagonal.” Doesn’t matter. The columns are just a way to organize the page. Also, don’t compare yourself to Doris. Her handwriting and column making are out of this world beautiful.
Begin with the first letter of the first word
For example, take the phrase “Steve Carell makes me laugh.” In the first column I would focus on the first letter of the first word, so the letter “S,” and write down the first word that comes to me that begins with the letter “S.” Here goes — Savory. Subtle. Setter. Salmon. Silly. Solve. Sultry. Semi. Just keep writing every word that comes to mind, making your way down the column. If you get to the end of the page and you still have “S” words in your head, go into the next column (or the next page) and keep going. When you’re ready, move onto the next letter. “T” Tumble. Tipsy. Tunnel. Turvy. Tugs. Temper. Tepid. Tubular. Tough. Tongue. Tinsel. I just get weirder the longer I write…
Let your mind be consumed by the exercise
The key to this exercise is to let go and allow your anxiety-filled mind to be taken over so that you’re focusing intently on your task, and not the stressful situation at-hand. Don’t think too much. Don’t not write down a word because it’s stupid. Did you see the words I strung together? Savory. Subtle. Setter. Salmon. Silly. Solve. Sultry. Semi. What even is a Setter? Like a person who sets things, or a slang name for Irish Setters? Those words just came to me. Let your mind spill out the words and run free. You’re doing this for you. And if you think to yourself, I can’t afford to zone out. I have children, neighbors, parents, my spouse to take care of. Well, I have some news for you. If you don’t take care of yourself, you won’t be able to help others well at all. You’re doing it for you as well as everyone else.
Ideally, stop when you feel ready to stop
But if you need to stop sooner, that’s okay. These exercises pass time easily (heck, maybe that’s why you’re doing it in the first place — to pass time) but if you spend just a few minutes the effects will be noticeable. Relief, reduced tension, a clearer head, calmed nerves, new outlook, the courage to take the next step… these are just some of the good side effects of this exercise. There are probably many more. Try it for yourself and let others know how it worked for you.
Have you tried this writing exercise? Let me know in the comments below. Love to hear about your experience. And don’t forget to subscribe to my newsletter for more good stuff.