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Release: Immediate

UI professor, meteorologist team up to treat 'severe weather phobia'

IOWA CITY, Iowa -- People who feel as if their hearts are beating louder than thunder with every severe storm watch and warning may have help in dealing with their severe weather fears, thanks to a unique project that teams a University of Iowa professor with a noted Iowa meteorologist.

John Westefeld, who introduced the term "severe weather phobia" into the psychological vocabulary, is joining Roger Evans, chief meteorologist at KGAN News Channel 2 and a certified member of the American Meteorological Society, to provide group counseling to people who are profoundly afraid of severe thunderstorms and tornadoes.

Westefeld, associate professor in the UI College of Education and director of the counseling psychology doctoral program, says the team approach is a well-respected method of helping people overcome phobias. The most widely known example -- counseling people who are afraid of flying -- includes a series of sessions with a psychologist and a certified pilot.

"The intent is to draw on the expertise of both people -- the psychologist who can help people deal with the anxiety caused by their fear and, in this case, the meteorologist who can help answer questions about the weather and how it works," Westefeld says. "Through that interaction, people with the phobia hopefully get a better sense of what they are afraid of and how to deal with that fear.

"Of course, people should always take appropriate safety precautions during any severe weather event," Westefeld says. "Our concern here is with people who become so anxious prior to and during severe weather that they can barely function."

This is the first time, to Westefeld's knowledge, that group counseling treatment would be available for people with profound fear of severe weather. Westefeld has been a leading advocate for recognizing severe weather phobia as a psychological condition since introducing the term in a 1996 study published in the Journal of Clinical Psychology. He's also presented his findings to the American Psychological Association (APA). People with severe weather phobia have an intense, debilitating, and unreasonable fear of severe thunderstorms and tornadoes, Westefeld says.

"Severe weather phobia affects people's lives the same way as other phobias that people may be familiar with," he says.

"As soon the forecast for the possibility of severe weather is made, people with severe weather phobia may often refuse to leave their homes, their hearts start pounding, it becomes extremely difficult for them to function, and they may panic," Westefeld says.

Westefeld acknowledges that severe weather phobia probably affects a small minority of people in the United States, but he says since little work has been done, it's difficult to judge the scope of the problem.

"The main reason we're offering this group is to try and help people who we think could benefit from this," Westefeld says.

Westefeld expects the proposed group treatment to require four sessions. Sessions will be free. Westefeld is hoping to begin sessions during the winter of 1999.

For more information, or to request participation in the group, contact John Westefeld, College of Education, 356 Lindquist Center; University of Iowa, Iowa City, Iowa 52242; phone: (319) 335-5562; email: