Thursday, November 02, 2006

It's Called Weather Phobia

One of my neighbor’s children is petrified of severe weather. Every time the wind begins to blow, the rain starts to fall and, especially, when the thunder rolls through our neighborhood, this 11-year-old girl becomes very apprehensive.

I’m told that her heart pounds, her palms sweat and she has a feeling of helplessness. This severe weather fear is nothing new to my young neighbor and has only been enhanced by our recent visits from Frances, Jeanne and Wilma.

As it turns out, she is not alone.

According to a study in the Bulletin of the American Meteorological Society, as many as one in five people may suffer from severe weather phobia, a condition described “ as an intense, debilitating, unreasonable fear of severe weather.”

Researchers from the University of Iowa studied severe weather phobia symptoms in 139 people from central Iowa, a location where tornadoes and severe weather can be fairly common during the spring and summer months.

The researchers identified 13 differing symptoms that many severe weather phobia victims suffer from including dizziness, shortness of breath, heart pounding, sweating, feeling helpless and panic. The researchers found that around 25 percent of the people surveyed reported enough symptoms to be classified as moderately phobic.

“The most common behavior or symptom reported was to constantly monitor television, radio or the Internet for weather information,” said lead author John Westfield of the University of Iowa. With the advent of increased media coverage of severe weather, researchers found that watching television coverage of an approaching storm often increases the subject’s anxiety.

“It is important to emphasize that these phobics were very afraid of severe weather,” said Westfield. “Many of them described themselves as barely able to function prior to and during severe weather events.” Some people even moved to different parts of the country to get away from severe weather.

Westfield says that most people who suffer from severe weather phobias are embarrassed about their fears and were surprised to learn that others might also have the phobia. However, very few subjects sought treatment of any kind.

Westfield came up with an experimental therapy program where a meteorologist and a psychologist worked together with severe weather phobics to decrease their fear using a combination of psychological approaches and meteorological education. Westfield says six people participated in the initial workshop in Iowa City, Iowa

“The meteorologist educated participants about severe weather,” said Westfield. “He talked about risk levels, prediction of severe weather events, and appropriate action.”

The psychologist taught participants a variety of techniques for coping with storm anxiety, including relaxation training and several other techniques.

“This treatment process seemed to work well and may hold promise as a future intervention technique,” said Westfield.

One of the participants in the workshop was Zeus Flores who has created a support website for people who suffer from severe weather phobia. The web site,, provides readers with more information about severe weather phobia and a forum to discuss the issue.

Like my young neighbor, many of us here in South Florida have concerns about severe storms and hurricanes but, thanks to work by Westfield and Flores’ website, at least there is a place to turn when that fear of weather starts to overwhelm us.

Posted at 1:30 PM