ST. LOUIS – Extreme weather events, like winter storms, floods, tornadoes, hurricanes, and thunderstorms can create some level of anxiety in people of all ages. In most cases, basic coping mechanisms can help a person get through it.
However, sometimes these fears or phobias can become so severe so as to become debilitating, and that’s when a person may need the help of a professional therapist or counselor. This type of extreme phobia is most common in people who have personally experienced a significant severe weather event.
According to Dr. Ericka Rutledge of SSM Health Cardinal Glennon Hospital, for an actual storm phobia diagnosis, the fear must meet three criteria. First: the fear must be excessive and out of proportion to the actual danger posed by an event. Second: it must be persistent – lasting six months or more. Finally: it must impact an individual’s ability to participate in social, work, or other important responsibilities of life.
Storm phobias affect roughly 2% of the population, or about 7 million people, according to Dr. Rutledge. In children, it most commonly presents along with other general anxieties that create concerns for parents. In adults, the severe weather phobias can be crippling in the worst of cases.
Rutledge makes several suggestions to help cope with stress and anxiety related to approaching or ongoing severe weather.
First of all, it’s important to have a plan. There is comfort in knowing and understanding what to do. The plan should include things like what to do if the power goes out, the location of flashlights and storm shelter, and how you can get help if needed.
Once you have that plan, put it into practice. Knowledge is power! Additionally, Dr. Rutledge suggests we normalize fear. She says we shouldn’t be afraid to talk about. It is especially important for children to know it is ok to be scared, but that everything possible is being done to keep them safe. Distractions can be especially helpful. Try singing songs, playing board games, etc. Do whatever you can to take your minds off the approaching storm.
If after all of this you still find yourself crippled with fear during storms, then it may be time to seek out additional help. You can reach out to your own doctor for a referral. They can put you in touch with a therapist who can help.
Another option is to call the federal government’s free Disaster Distress Hotline at 1-800-985-5990 or visit them online. They have trained counselors who help you deal with severe weather phobias and anxiety.