Topic: College of Sciences and Humanities

October 7, 2014

Severe weather
Severe thunderstorm

One in 10 Americans may suffer from severe weather phobia that causes them to lose sleep or have feelings of helplessness, says a new study from Ball State University.

“Weathering the Storm: Revisiting Severe Weather Phobia” surveyed about 300 people in 43 states. About 85 percent of respondents reported having at least some degree of severe-weather fear while 46.1 percent describing their fear level as “a little bit.” About 10 percent of participants classified themselves as having an overall fear level as both “extreme” and “quite a bit” categories, possibly indicating severe-weather phobia.

Three percent of respondents reported seeking professional or self-help treatment for severe-weather phobia or specific inclement weather events.

“Severe weather phobia is very real,” says Jill Coleman, a Ball State geography professor and lead author on the study, which was recently published in the American Meteorological Society Journal. “Some people will get physically ill or lose sleep while others will start watching weather forecasts on a more regular basis.

“Overall, we found that people simply love to talk about the weather. In the West, it’s about high winds and wildfires, and here in the Midwest it’s all about tornados, thunderstorms and blizzards. On the East Coast, people are more likely to talk about hurricanes than regular thunderstorms.”

The study found:

  • About 99 percent of all respondents had experienced some form of severe weather with the most common event being thunderstorms (90.9 percent) and high winds (90.3 percent) followed by heavy snow and freezing rain (80 percent each).
  • 80.5 percent of respondents do not suffer from severe weather phobia, 4.7 percent believe they do and the remainder is not sure.
  • When it comes to severe weather, respondents reported feelings of anxiety (72 percent), increasing heart pounding (62.9 percent), changing schedules (60.8 percent) and feelings of helplessness (60.4 percent).
  • Participants who reported taking a weather-related course also admitted experiencing more anxiety symptoms and behaviors.

The study also found that 11.7 percent of participants reported they know someone who surfers from severe-weather phobia.

“My father lives in Kansas and the second he hears about tornados, he’ll change his schedule to avoid being on the road and then start watching television reports more intensely,” Coleman said. “Our research indicates that we actually may be able to see such phobias in others but have difficulty in seeing them in ourselves.”

She also believes the study lays the groundwork for a better understanding of severe weather phobia phenomena as well as the role that weather knowledge and anxiety plays in the minds of individuals across the country.

“These results could provide useful information for weather forecasters and media groups in terms of how often people monitor media during severe weather events,” Coleman said. “When not debilitating, some fear can be a substantial motivator to encourage individuals to take action against the threat, such as seeking shelter.”

In addition to Coleman, the research team included faculty and students at the University of Kansas.