Preparing for a Storm – Lessons from Tornado Alley

August 10, 2020 8:55 am Published by

learn how to weather social storms

As a country, it appears likely we are headed for stormy times. Why do I think so?  First, as a psychologist and social scientist, I’m trained to observe patterns in social behaviors that assist us in predicting future likely behavior patterns. Secondly, because I’m from the Midwest in the heart of “tornado alley” and we are experts in being able to see the signs leading to severe weather. And the two sets of patterns and conditions are quite similar.

Stormy Weather

I’m not going to go through all of the different circumstances that lead up to severe weather in the Midwest (go here for that information), but there are some general patterns that predict the likelihood of tornados:

  • “Big picture” conditions. Forecasters know the foundational weather conditions necessary for tornados to form. They don’t just happen randomly.
  • Conflict between two powerful forces. Tornados (and other severe storms) are a result of the clashing between a large, strong cold air mass and an equally powerful front of warm, humid air.
  • Confluence of numerous specific conditions coming together. A number of specific (“just right”) circumstances have to develop and occur simultaneously (and continue over time) for tornados to develop (as opposed to less intense thunderstorms).

However, while forecasting the likelihood of tornadic activity has improved significantly, predicting tornados exactly with regards to time and place is still virtually impossible.

Social Storms

Similar principles are true with regards to predicting angry and aggressive behaviors by groups of people and societal disruption. We know the general factors which begin to form the underlying conditions necessary. We also know many of the specific conditions that, when combined, make social upheaval more likely. But the ability to predict the type and severity of the “storms” is far less accurate.

Comparable to meteorologists’ accuracy regarding predicting tornados, the same is true for human behavior — social scientists have become fairly good at understanding the conditions which underlie problematic behaviors and social upheaval, but we are terrible at predicting specifics (who, when, where). The implication? Social unrest in the near future seems probable (in fact, some social “storms” have already become evident)– but we really won’t know how intense the “storm season” will be, how long it will be, or where (or when) the specific tempests will occur.

Signs of Severe Societal Storms on the Horizon

The following patterns seem to be setting the stage for ongoing “social storms,” potentially in the near future:

  • Economic uncertainty. This is true both at a macro level (global and the U.S. economy) and at a micro, or personal level (job insecurity; loss of extra, supplementary unemployment benefits at the end of July).
  • Increasing numbers of unemployed workers. Over 30 MILLION (30,000,000) workers have lost their jobs in the past 4 months, which is about 15% of the workforce. This fact obviously creates significant financial stress for many individuals and families.
  • Disruption in daily life habits. Working from home and social distancing policies have dramatically impacted everyone’s life – from work, to reduced leisure activities, where we eat, limitations in travel. These disruptions make daily life decisions far more taxing.
  • Lack of clarity and agreement about what actions to take. Regardless of the issue (returning to work, wearing masks, sporting events, sending our children to school), there are numerous and competing opinions bombarding us daily.
  • Conflict of basic values between large proportions of the population. Divergent opinions regarding which of our values (individual freedoms & independence, choice, personal sacrifice for the greater good) underlie much of the public discussion, and lead to differences in decisions made across our country, states and cities.
  • Perceived threats to our children and families. While numerous threats exist (COVID-19, social isolation, lack of daily life structure, inadequate education, lack of physical activity), contrasting views are held regarding which are most dangerous and impactful.
  • Diminished social support and increased isolation. Our lack of personal, physical contact with family, friends, and community cannot be overstated. These patterns significantly diminish our capability to cope with the stress and challenges in our lives.
  • Poor ability to determine the accuracy of information given. Relevant, accurate information is needed to make good decisions. When the information needed is not accurate (read: truthful), available, and communicated clearly then our ability to make wise decisions is hindered tremendously. When we are not sure of the trustworthiness of the information available, insecurity, anxiety and agitation follow.

How to Survive Storms (both physical and social)

Even though many times stormy weather passes us by (or isn’t as severe as predicted), some basic preparatory actions are usually wise to take – because when we are hit by the storm, a few items can make a huge difference on the impact on our lives.

              Understand the patterns leading up to storms. Educating yourself ahead of time is wise (it’s too late once the storm has arrived). Learning both the general patterns of storms developing plus understanding what you can do to prepare and what is probably unnecessary to do (for example, stocking a six-month supply of toilet paper).

              Pay attention to the conditions. Once you learn the conditions, you then need to pay attention to what’s going on around you. Otherwise, your knowledge is useless. Good storm predictors are always gathering the most recent relevant data to help them determine “is the likelihood of a severe storm increasing or decreasing?”

              Don’t ignore the signs, but don’t panic either. Respond to the threats and current conditions with an appropriate level of response. Don’t act like “Nothing’s going to happen” (because it may), and don’t overreact, thinking “The world is going to end” (because it almost certainly won’t).

              Take reasonable precautions. The level of threat will increase or decrease as the storm approaches. Reasonable reactions are directly related to your current level of threat. Your response should differ if “there is a likelihood of severe weather tonight” in contrast to “there is a tornado on the ground headed your way and is expected to reach your area in 15 minutes.”

              Don’t only think about yourself, but consider others around you. Storms (both weather-based and societal) don’t just impact individuals, but neighbors, communities and regions. Even though the storm may have by-passed you this time, others around you may have been affected.

              Make sure you have ways of staying connected with others. One of the keys to survival (both physically and emotionally) is to have social support — during the storm, immediately following the event, and throughout the period of recovery afterwards. Setting up ways to keep connected to those important to you is a critical step many forget, and which creates much anxiety when you are unable to reach those important to you.

Summary – What Should We Do?

Making specific recommendations for a wide range of people is both difficult and highly unlikely to be applicable to many individuals’ situations. But if we think about social and societal storms, then the actions that probably do apply are those related to our relationships with others. As a result, reflect on the last two preparation suggestions and consider how they relate to your life and circumstances:

  • Besides yourself, in these challenging times, who are you concerned about? What can you do to be of help to them (either now, in preparing for stormy times, or when the more intense storms come)?
  • With whom do you want to make sure you stay connected? Identify at least two methods by which you will do so (and it may be good to start now).

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August 10, 2020 8:55 am

1 Comment

  • Fanny says:

    This is so practical!

    I experienced a typhoon last year in Japan and, yes, it can be scary. So informing ourselves from different reliable sources and keeping in touch with friends making sure everyone is safe and is taking the step to do is key.

    Thank you for warpping up this whole situation like you did.

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