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Ask Dr. Helen: Preparing for Disaster — Prudent or Paranoid?

It's wise to be prepared — just don't lose sight of today as you brace for a potential tomorrow.

by
Helen Smith

Bio

August 5, 2008 - 12:00 am

So when does preparing for the worst shade over from prudence into paranoia? That’s a question that often comes up when people talk about preparing for disasters, financial meltdowns, or confrontation with criminals. How much is enough, and how much is too much?

It’s been over a year that I have been writing this column and I happened to take a look recently at the first piece I wrote, entitled “What Kinds of Things Should an Adult Be Able to Do?” The article and your responses got me thinking about being prepared for disasters or incidents in general that require skill and forethought to overcome. Using Heinlein’s quote on generalization, I opined that it was important for adults to be able to do a number of things such as drive a stick shift or swim a reasonable distance. Heinlein’s quote is as follows:

A human being should be able to change a diaper, plan an invasion, butcher a hog, conn a ship, design a building, write a sonnet, balance accounts, build a wall, set a bone, comfort the dying, take orders, give orders, cooperate, act alone, solve equations, analyze a new problem, pitch manure, program a computer, cook a tasty meal, fight efficiently, die gallantly. Specialization is for insects.

What about applying Heinlein’s thoughts to disaster preparedness? In my estimation, it is prudent — within reason — to be able to handle a wide range of situations that call for general skills, just as Heinlein suggests. It is important to be prepared for any number of natural or man-made disasters even though the chances of being the victim of any specific one may be small. I will include self-defense here because being a victim of a crime is not necessarily a rare occurence but one that happens all too often; in 2006, for example, an estimated 1,417,000 violent crimes were committed across the country.

If you bring up preparing for certain disasters such as violent crime, people will often tell you you’re paranoid, particularly if they do not like where you are coming from politically and this is true for both sides of the spectrum, left and right. Try bringing up gun training to someone who doesn’t believe we need self-defense or mistakenly thinks that the police will protect you. They will try to convince you that you don’t need to train because the threat is small or you are paranoid.

Other naysayers will tell you that your preparation is fruitless. For example, I have a post on Krav Maga — an Israeli form of self-defense — and a commenter felt that learning this type of self-defense for me was probably a waste of time because I would be going up against an attacker more savvy and streetwise. Yeah, that’s always a reason to sit back like a wallflower and just hope passively that nothing bad will ever happen.

I think it’s a lot more intelligent to train — both with weapons and without — in order to have some ability to protect oneself. Not because I am paranoid — okay, maybe I am — but because as an adult, it is a good thing to be prepared in the event of a crime. Does this mean you will succeed? No, but nothing is 100%. I would rather have some skills than none. And sometimes preparation is just good for self-sufficiency, like growing one’s own food as I did this year. Sure, the decline of cheap oil and the threat of hard times to come may play a factor in prompting people to grow more food themselves, but if the only result is that I have a healthier snack to eat, is that so bad?

Many of us, from both sides of the political aisle, think that planning for disaster would be helpful but it is hard to know how much of disaster preparation is political and how much realistic. My husband, Glenn, in an article in TCS Daily makes these points:

There’s also a political angle. Back in the 1990s, it was the Soldier of Fortune crowd that was preparing for some sort of apocalyptic scenario. Back then, the Democrats were in power, and much of the apocalypticism we heard was from the right. Now, with the Republicans in power over the past six years, the apocalypticism has shifted leftward. A quick perusal of Amazon demonstrates this: Where once people on the right were worried about the shock troops of the socialist New World Order or the breakup of America into racial enclaves, now it seems like it’s mostly lefties worrying about self-reliance in the face of collapsing unsustainable technology and the dangers of suburban extinction in the face of high oil prices.

I predict that if Democrats do better in coming elections, much of the lefty apocalypticism will diminish. Unfortunately, that may lead to a loss of consciousness about the importance of disaster preparation among the larger populace. But maybe not. It’s a dangerous world out there, and there are lots of reasons, beyond politics, for doing what we can to be ready for it. Perhaps that message will persist, regardless. It should.

The key here to disaster preparedness is to keep an open mind, maintain a balance in your life, and don’t get too extreme one way or another. You want to be prepared, but you don’t want the preparedness to take over your life. In other words, be prepared but don’t be paranoid like this teen (Hat tip: Don Surber):

Psychiatrists have detected the first case of “climate change delusion” — and they haven’t even yet got to Kevin Rudd and his global warming guru.

Writing in the Australian and New Zealand Journal of Psychiatry, Joshua Wolf and Robert Salo of our Royal Children’s Hospital say this delusion was a “previously unreported phenomenon.”

“A 17-year-old man was referred to the inpatient psychiatric unit at Royal Children’s Hospital Melbourne with an eight-month history of depressed mood. … He also … had visions of apocalyptic events.” …

“The patient had also developed the belief that, due to climate change, his own water consumption could lead within days to the deaths of millions of people through exhaustion of water supplies.”

Storing some bottled water in your basement, as the federal government recommends, isn’t paranoid. Being afraid to drink water for fear of climate collapse is.

In conclusion, my advice is that one doesn’t want to take things to an extreme and get overly anxious about certain events taking place, but it is good to have the ability and forethought to have some control should something unpredictable happen. If not overdone, preparedness can even be mentally healthy. A feeling of mastery can help lessen anxiety. In addition, it will be beneficial to society if citizens are equipped to handle problems themselves without turning to the government for all of the solutions. For in the end, self-reliance and self-sufficiency may be the only traits separating those who make it through or even flourish in hard times and those who flounder.

So, what do you think, is preparing for disaster or crime prudent or paranoid? Do you have your own areas of disaster preparedness that you focus on and prepare for and if so, what are they and how do you prepare? Or do you think some disasters are just politically motivated to make people paranoid enough to vote a particular way?

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If you have a question you would like answered, please leave it below or email me at askdrhelen@hotmail.com. Your questions may be edited for length and clarity. Please note that your first name only or no name at all will be used to identify your question — if you want me to use your name, tell me; otherwise you will be referred to by your first name or as “a reader,” etc.

Helen Smith is a psychologist specializing in forensic issues in Knoxville, Tennessee, and blogs at Dr. Helen.
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