CONTACT: STEPHEN PRADARELLI
100 Old Public Library
Iowa City IA 52242
(319) 384-0007; fax (319) 384-0024
Release: April 3, 2001
UI to offer 'Coping With Severe Weather Phobia' April 28
IOWA CITY, Iowa -- Most people look forward to spring, a time of warmer
temperatures, budding flowers and outdoor activities. But for a handful of
people, spring is a season of fear, bringing with it the threat of thunderstorms,
tornadoes and other threatening weather.
On Saturday, April 28, University of Iowa counseling psychology professor
John Westefeld and Roger Evans, chief meteorologist for KGAN News 2 in Cedar
Rapids, are teaming up to help people cope with those fears.
"Coping With Severe Weather Phobia" will be held from 1 to 5 p.m.
Saturday, April 28 in the UI College of Education's Lindquist Center. People
interested in registering for the workshop can e-mail Westefeld at firstname.lastname@example.org,
or call him at (319) 335-5562.
Developed by Westefeld and Evans, the free "Coping With Severe Weather
Phobia" workshop -- believed to be unique nationally -- is patterned
after programs created for people who are afraid to fly in airplanes. Such
programs are typically team-taught by pilots and psychologists.
In the severe weather workshop, Evans, an American Meteorological Society-certified
broadcaster with 13 years of service in eastern Iowa, will spend part of the
session explaining the science of severe weather -- for instance, what causes
severe weather and what the chances are of actually being harmed by it --
while Westefeld will teach techniques for reducing stress and anxiety caused
by severe weather.
Westefeld will also discuss resources available for people with extreme
fear of bad weather. One such resource is a Web site created specifically
for weather phobia sufferers, http://www.stormphobia.org.
The timing of the workshop is not coincidental. Late March and early April
usually mark the beginning of tornado and other severe weather season, particularly
throughout the nation's midsection. The season can last as late as August,
with May and June being peak months. About 1,000 tornadoes are spawned each
year in the United States, which also receives as many as 20 million cloud-to-ground
lightning strikes per year from an estimated 100,000 thunderstorms.
A professor in the UI College of Education's Division of Psychological and
Quantitative Foundations, Westefeld coined the term "severe weather phobia"
to describe the debilitating, persistent and irrational fear of thunderstorms
and their phenomena, such as lightning, thunder, wind, hail and tornadoes.
Westefeld first became aware of severe weather phobia 20 years ago while
in private practice as a psychologist, first in Ames, Iowa, and later in Auburn,
Ala. He said a number of patients came in seeking help because they had an
extreme fear of severe weather.
"I researched it and found, basically, nothing in the literature,"
Westefeld said. He said he also spoke with national weather experts, who encouraged
him to look into the matter further.
So Westefeld conducted his own study of 81 people who described themselves
as having an intense, debilitating fear of severe weather. The study was published
in 1996 in the Journal of Clinical Psychology.
"The study participants said their fear was very disruptive to their
lives, not to mention embarrassing," Westefeld said.
He said it's difficult to determine the prevalence of severe weather phobia
nationally. Six people -- four self-described phobics and two people related
to suspected phobics -- attended the first severe weather phobia workshop
last fall, some coming from as far away as Chicago and Mississippi.
To better understand the problem, Westefeld and colleagues Tim Ansley, an
associate professor in the UI College of Education Iowa Testing Programs,
and Judy Feil, a graduate research assistant in the Iowa Testing Programs,
are developing a scale to measure levels of fear and anxiety caused by severe
weather in patients.
"Like any extreme fear, I think it's important we take severe weather
phobia seriously," Westefeld said. "Some people may view severe
weather as a nuisance, albeit one to certainly be taken seriously. However,
to the severe weather phobic, each and every storm situation -- regardless
of severity -- may seem like a matter of life and death and fraught with massive
and debilitating anxiety."