One of the worst things about living in Florida was the experience of living through hurricanes.
I had been there only a few months for grad school when the first hurricane warning rolled through. For 4 days, it was all anyone could talk about: that damned hurricane. Was it going to hit? Wasn’t it? Where would it make landfall? How much damage might it do?
Every news program led with the hurricane forecast and the NOAA’s current tracking information. Every conversation at work, at school, everywhere was consumed by this impending doom.
In response, people did the expected thing: they hoarded food, cleaning out most supermarkets. Those who had the skills started boarding up their windows. People began calling out of work, and many began evacuating, causing huge traffic snarls even before any governmental orders.
Even as the hurricane began to make landfall, and some were ordered out of their homes, many people simply resisted. They did this either because they did not believe the predictions to be as bad as forecast, or because they lacked an option — economic or otherwise — to leave their home.
In this particular case, the skeptics were vindicated when the hurricane turned at the last minute and lost steam. Days later, once everyone had braved the traffic to return, un-boarded their windows and began throwing out the food they had hoarded, life began to return to normal.
But honestly, I was rattled. The thing that bugged me was not the risk of a hurricane — I was hunkered down with my school friends and felt confident we were correctly supplied. Rather it was the extreme, irrational panic that seemed to grip people. The more the media talked about the hurricane, the more intense everyone became, and by the end of the 5th day of this onslaught of impending doom, even the most jovial people were talking about backup plans and sharing evacuation route suggestions.
A crisis brewing in the distance and the near-constant chatter of experts on a 24 hour news cycle was a perfect way to foment irrational angst. It made already-anxious people sick and normally calm people Larry David-level neurotic. That was nearly 30 years ago, well before the advent of social media. I don’t think I could have ever predicted how much COVID-19, the first social media pandemic, would embrace this irrationality and dial it up to 100.
After school, I moved to San Francisco, which had only recently begun digging itself out of the twin crises caused by AIDS and the 1989 Loma Prieta Earthquake. The aftermath of both left indelible scars on the city. Everywhere you looked, people were still trying to come to grips with the new reality of their own survival. These were the people who didn’t die, but to the living goes the task to rebuild in all its meanings: community, infrastructure, and one’s own sense of self and safety in the world.
Once settled, one of the first things I did was assemble an earthquake survival kit using information I had gleaned from the public health authority. Having this made me feel less nervous about the next big earthquake that I thought was just around the corner and could strike at any moment. As the pace of new arrivals increased to San Francisco, many of my friends thought I too was neurotic — even having an earthquake kit seemed anathema in those heady times.
The first time I experienced an earthquake for real was in Los Angeles a couple of years later. I went to visit a friend, and while we were hanging out in his mid-century Silver Lake home, an earthquake started. We ran outside, and joked that we were kinda pushing each other out of the way in a panicked response. It was relatively minor (4.9 ish IIRC) but it definitely impacted me, and I remember being discombobulated for days afterwards — as I have for each earthquake I’ve subsequently experienced.
As unnerving as they are, there’s a kind of beauty in the lack of predictability of earthquakes. Because they don’t provide much of a lead time to react (though things have improved on that front), even the most anxious among us eventually realize they cannot predict when the next one will happen. For many people who live in earthquake-prone areas it seems the risk of temblors ultimately ends up backgrounded.
Because I’m not a huge fan of confined spaces and falling objects (but who is?) I do still consider the escape route in any space I walk into, and make a mental note of where the minimally dangerous spot might be in a given space. This is especially true when I’m sleeping — particularly in an unfamiliar spot. I’ll consider the closest “void” that I can throw myself into, and — secure in that knowledge — I can fall asleep.
I would take earthquakes over hurricanes any day of the week. For me, and my mental health, the impact of the crowd’s anxiety over impending doom is much worse than an out-of-left-field risk that I cannot predict (but I can prepare for). I’m not saying I like earthquakes, but even earthquake early warning systems, such as those in Mexico City, add to my anxiety instead of take it away.
Same thing with HIV. Those early days were super stressful: before we understood what the disease was, how to catch it, and who had it (we lacked effective tests for nearly a decade — sound familiar?) anxiety was through the roof. No one knew who would die next, and eventually a kind of permanent grey cloud set in for gay men that would take a generation to unwind. This was, of course, exacerbated by the marked lack of governmental leadership on the topic (sound familiar?).
It strikes me that most personal and professional crises in life fit somewhat neatly into these two categories: you can either predict it (hurricanes) or you can’t (earthquakes). And while each one requires different coping mechanisms, some of us are just better at one or the other.
Take the COVID-19 pandemic (an obvious hurricane if there ever was one) as an example. As anxiety mounts, fueled by our relentless consumption of social media, people are experiencing greater and greater amounts of existential dread. Many reasonable people are out buying guns, raiding stores, and talking about being quarantined for a year.
This panic has also clearly fed a demand for politicians to react, and we’re seeing extreme measures being put in place that are self-fulfilling prophecies of the most anxious. Borders closing, curfews, military-enforced home quarantine are all measures that make people very uncomfortable, but seem to also be desired by many.
There is a human tendency to manifest the things we’re most worried about into existence. Some people think of this as tapping into an abstract energy in the universe, but sometimes it’s just simple psychology. We fear something, spend all our time thinking about it, those things come to pass and affirm our fears. This somehow makes people feel better instead of worse, and when extreme enough, can ignite the kind of nihilism that makes recovery all but impossible.
There are also analogies to the AIDS crisis here. None of my HIV+ friends is happy they have the disease, but almost every one has mentioned the sense of relief they felt once they became positive. Realizing that they were no longer being stalked by the virus meant they could move on to the next phase of life. I’m not saying any of them willed their HIV status into existence, but the subconscious connection between desire, dread and action cannot be ignored.
Similarly then, it seems inescapable that these fears of individuals, amplified by social media, are now guiding policy rather than the other way around. When you dig through the noise, most public health experts believe this disease is only mildly problematic and can be slowed dramatically by simple social distancing measures. Closing borders? Hoarding food? None of the experts are suggesting that, but it seems the political system is responding to the people’s anxiety rather than the best medical advice.
And this matters because there are going to be more hurricanes and earthquakes, and if we can’t develop coping skills, I don’t think that bodes well for our culture. But it’s important for that self-development work to be done both by our institutions and our government.
As individuals, we need to build skills around resilience and coping. Start by figuring out how to prepare for crises (personal, professional and societal) such that your anxiety is reduced. Maybe for you this is about having a certain amount of money under your mattress. Or perhaps you need a bunker full of food to feel ok. And maybe it’s about having a passive income stream so you can continue to survive even if you can’t work for a while.
These are all acceptable choices, even if people laugh at you. Whatever it takes to calm that risk-averting anxiety is what you need. Think of it as a kind of insurance that frees you to go forward and find your bliss.
Also, be sure to identify the kind of threat you’re facing early on so that you can choose the correct coping mechanism — because you’re likely to need something different for earthquakes and hurricanes: coping with dread and responding to emergencies take unique approaches.
Find the strategy that best relieves the anxiety, and follow that yellow brick road.