Contemplating a dip in the surf on Ocracoke. Photo: C. Leinbach

Ask a Mental Health Professional Installment #4

By Earle Irwin
Question: What should I know or do before I go into the ocean?

Response: When I received this question, my initial reaction was that it had been misdirected. After all, what does swimming in the ocean have to do with mental health? In addition to the question, the inquirer had provided some of the answer–about how to prepare. And then I got it. The question is a metaphor—a comparison between two things that aren’t alike but do have something in common.

Let’s consider that going into the ocean is a metaphor for facing the unknown.

When we face the unknown or unfamiliar, we often do so with some level of anxiety, fear or dread.  If we’re not familiar with swimming in the ocean, and we decide to spend the day at the beach, we may feel anxious.

But if we take some time to educate ourselves about riptides, if we go to the Lifeguard Beach where the lifeguards can advise us on the safety of swimming at that particular time, or if we do some research about rip currents on Ocracoke, then we can have more confidence about the soundness of our decision to go for a swim. We’ve prepared ourselves to make use of ready resources (lifeguards).

We can take additional precautions like wearing a personal flotation device and applying waterproof sunscreen, so we don’t face the discomfort of sunburn later.

In other words, the more we can learn ahead of time about any situation, the better able we are to adjust our expectations and ease our own sense of uncertainty. A situation or stressor that seems threatening to us actually may be a call to attention, an opportunity to address a challenge in a new and effective way.

Recently someone in the village told me that she’s been experiencing a fair amount of anxiety about the upcoming hurricane season. While she is fortunate enough to have moved back into her house, she finds herself worrying about the problems another flood could create.

“Instead of fretting and losing any more sleep, I’m going home right now and begin putting things up,” she said.

She talked about how she could use what she’d learned from Dorian damage to organize her personal belongings in a way that would minimize clean-up if her house did get damaged again. She is finding a way to apply information (knowledge of what can happen in a flood) to make a plan and to prepare.

Hurricanes, storms, floods all are unknowns. We humans have little to no control over weather events, and yet we can master some control by taking charge of preparations. Many residents who did not evacuate during Dorian have said that they now plan to evacuate in case of another hurricane threat and have made arrangements with inland family or friends. They have mapped out their own evacuation route to safety.

The important take-away from these stories is that folks have found ways to deal with their anxieties by making a plan and initiating preparations.

What are sources of anxiety in your life? Do you have enough fact-based information to know what it is you’re facing? Have you considered what resources you already have (such as social and financial supports, information sources, friends and family, agencies, church home or spiritual community)?

Do you have information about additional resources that are available to you? Do you have a plan for how to apply the information and to access the resources to address the anxiety-provoking issue in the most effective way?

These questions are ones you may be able to answer on your own, given some thought.

Please consider me a resource as you construct your own personal life preserver for your foray into the ocean. Call, text, or email me. 703-863-1243 or My support services are available to you at no charge.

Earle Irwin, a retired clinical nurse specialist, is on Ocracoke through July to help islanders cope with Dorian aftermath and any other issues they may be dealing with.

Previous articleHyde County budget workshop scheduled for Tuesday
Next articleOcracoke School graduation to adapt to the times