As I’m writing this, the weather forecast is predicting a strong thunderstorm for later this afternoon. Every 10 minutes on the news, the weather update plays again. The map is full of orange and red, signaling danger. I wonder how many people watching are now starting to feel panicky and believing a threat is headed their way. Given the intensity of the message I’m seeing, it would be normal to feel that way.
When we receive information that tells us that our safety may be at risk, the natural response is to feel concern and then to take action. We might feel flooded with “what if…?” thoughts. We might google things like “What are the odds of dying in a tornado?” or check the weather over and over. We may experience the urge to avoid leaving the house or to hide in the basement or in bed. Emotionally, we might feel symptoms of panic when confronted with storm-related triggers.
Severe weather warnings should be taken seriously. If severe storms are predicted for your area, make a plan for what to do and when to put the plan into action. However, the intensity of the message may not reflect the actual level of risk that a storm presents. Beyond making a plan for what to do in a storm, it’s probably not helpful to keep thinking about this. In the next sections I’ll walk you through some strategies you can try to work on letting these thoughts go.
Practice more realistic thinking
Part of what makes letting thoughts about potential danger go difficult is that it feels so scary. It might feel like we’re missing something important by choosing to stop thinking about it. It feels like taking a risk, and to avoid that we just keep focusing on it.
It’s easy to get stuck in feeling afraid and thinking about how awful things would be. Using the way we feel (anxious) to draw conclusions about the present moment (dangerous) can sometimes keep us stuck. This is like telling ourselves, “I feel worried so there must be something to be worried about.” If we can pull that apart a little, we can see that there are two different things happening–first, we feel worried (and that makes sense, given the messages we see on TV and the weather app), and second, we are using that as evidence that we should feel worried. It’s that second part I want to focus on next.
It’s not helpful to tell ourselves that there’s nothing to worry about. Storms do have the potential to be dangerous and every time there is severe weather, there is risk. There’s uncertainty there, and uncertainty is a playground for anxiety. The goal here is to put our anxiety in perspective and to keep the anxiety in proportion to the risk.
The most recent national data available on tornado fatalities is from 2020. In 2020, there were 76 deaths by tornado in the US. There were 329.5 million people living in in the US. That means the odds of a tornado fatality were .0000002%. There were no fatalities in Missouri.
According to the National Weather Service, the odds of being struck by lightning are 1 in 1,222,000 in a given year. That’s a .0000082% chance. The risk over a lifetime is 1 in a 15,300 chance of getting struck by lightning in their lifetime, defined as an 80-year span. That’s a .0065% chance. That makes your odds of getting struck by lightning nearly 20,000 times higher than hitting the winning numbers for this week’s jackpot.
In contrast, the odds of an automobile fatality are closer to 1% over the course of a lifetime. This is a risk that many of us are willing to take everyday and we may not think twice about it. We put our kids and pets and loved ones in the car and zip off to work or daycare or the zoo. Consciously or not, we make a decision that the risk here is tolerably low and we move forward with our lives and the things that matter to us.
If we’re able to tolerate this risk, we can practice tolerating the risk associated with severe weather. The key here is to remember that we may be overestimating just how dangerous storms are.
Practice moving your attention back to the present moment
Once you’ve recognized that these repetitive negative thoughts about storms are making you more anxious and causing you to feel exhausted and overwhelmed, the next step is to practice disengaging from them. This part is simple but not easy.
When the thought shows up again, start by acknowledging it.When you don’t notice this thought, it’s more likely that you’ll respond in the same old habitual way. Catching the thought when it comes up and seeing it for what it is gives you options in how to respond to it. You might say something to yourself like “Ah, I’m thinking about storms again.” Or “Hm, there’s that thought again.”
Next, practice disengaging from the thought. Remind yourself that there’s nothing to do and there’s no need to respond. You’ve already made your plan and it’s not necessary to revise or update it.
Once you’ve disengaged from the thought, where do you place your attention? Start with the present moment. Connect with your five senses in the here and now. What do you see? Name five things. How does your body feel? Describe four sensations. Practice noticing your breathing. What do you hear? List three things. What do you smell? What do you taste?
Then, continue doing whatever it was you were doing before you were distracted with the thought. If you’re at work, try to engage again with work. If you’re with someone else, try to engage in the conversation. You might say to yourself “Okay, now what was I doing? Oh right, I’m working on this email.”
Repeat These Steps
Oftentimes when I’m first starting to work with someone on figuring things out and practicing these skills, someone will tell me that this didn’t “work.” When I ask more, I discover that someone was able to follow these steps but then several minutes later, guess what? The thought comes back. It didn’t work.
It’s important to know what to expect going into this exercise. Changing your relationship with negative thoughts takes time and practice to see results. If you were working on increasing your physical strength, it would be unreasonable to expect to go to the gym once and see results. You would probably plan to make exercise a routine part of your life, several times a week. And over time, with repetition and consistency you would start to see results. This strategy works the same way. Think of this practice as exercising your brain. When you change the response to these thoughts and work to shift your attention, over and over, you’ll start to see results. You’ll feel more freedom, be able to be present in the moments of your life, and feel less exhausted by constantly managing negative thoughts.
If you have questions or would like to talk more about this and other similar strategies, feel free to send us a message or schedule a free, 15 minute consultation call at 314-462-2965.