The American Psychiatric Association (APA) defines phobia as a “marked fear or anxiety about a specific object or situation.” The APA further designates diagnostic criteria for five broad categories of specific phobia classifications, including the natural environment type, where fears are prompted by an object or phenomenon in the natural landscape (e.g., water). Natural environment phobias include weather-related conditions such as fear of thunderstorms (astrophobia), clouds (nephophobia), hurricanes (lilapsophobia), snow (chionophobia), cold (cryophobia), wind (ancraophobia), and rain (ombrophobia), among others. Natural environment phobias have the second highest prevalence rate (between approximately 9% and 12%) among phobia subtypes, with storm phobia alone occurring in 2%–3% of the general population.
In a 1996 Journal of Clinical Psychology article, Westefeld coined the term “severe weather phobia” as describing those “persons with an intense, debilitating, and unreasonable fear of severe weather,” where severe weather was narrowly defined as severe thunderstorms and tornadoes. In that study and in a 2006 BAMS article, Westefeld and colleagues examined severe-weather phobia to explain characteristics, causes, and potential treatment methods associated with the phenomena. Other research has investigated the origins of weather phobias, such as from personal experience or parental conditioning, and the identification of vulnerable populations (e.g., children, lower socioeconomic status); however, quantitative data on severe-weather and other meteorological-related phobia remains sparse.
Although published studies on the topic are minimal, many public forums such as blogs, social media, and popular news articles continuously recognize emotional distress related to severe weather and offer basic coping strategies. The American Psychological Association, for example, provides information on their website (www.apa.org/helpcenter/recovering-disasters.aspx) on how to cope emotionally with disasters such as tornadoes. This website also includes more than 3,000 links to related articles in newspapers, newsletters, magazines, websites, and research journals. Individuals also rely on many forms of social media (e.g., Facebook, Twitter), news outlets, and weather-tracking sites to inform them during severe weather events. Consequently, severe weather communication needs to be informative, with language appropriate for the threat level while minimizing unnecessary fear and stress.
The present study expands and updates the research in the 2006 BAMS article—the most recent severe-weather phobia study—by using a larger and more demographically and geographically diverse sample. Furthermore, questions were added to assess the extent and frequency of exposure to severe weather and the level of meteorology education and knowledge. Although those living in the central United States are accustomed to thunderstorms and tornadoes as the definition of severe weather, we sought to determine if severe weather terminology and experiences are geographically specific. For example, East Coast residents may experience more fear associated with Atlantic hurricanes than with individual thunderstorm warnings. By recognizing the spatial patterns and demographics behind inclement-weather phobia, new areas for focusing on treatment options, such as meteorology education and/or counseling, may become apparent. Additionally, this research may provide weather forecasters and media groups with a better understanding of the prevalence of emotional distress associated with severe weather.
The questionnaire in the 2006 BAMS study was expanded upon and completed electronically by 298 volunteers through Amazon's Mechanical Turk (MTurk) service (www.mturk.com). MTurk is a low-cost online data service provider with access to a diverse population for research purposes. Our survey was submitted to MTurk, and eligible participants (i.e., U.S. citizens aged 18 or older) were solicited to volunteer for the study with minimal compensation.
Survey questions centered on issues related to overall fear of severe weather, frequency of physical and psychological responses (symptoms of anxiety) to severe weather events, and personal experience with a variety of severe weather categories. Using the Storm Prediction Center (SPC) guidelines, severe weather here was broadly defined as any meteorological event that poses a significant threat to life and property and/or encompasses the purview of the National Weather Service watch/warning system. The survey also addressed whether the subject believes they, or someone they know, has severe-weather phobia, whether they have sought treatment for severe-weather phobia, and their level of meteorology education and knowledge related to severe weather. It is recognized that each participant may experience diverse reactions of various levels of severity and duration to the same severe weather and not all responses would be considered a phobia, which is a formal diagnosis consisting of a specific constellation of symptoms outlined in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders V (DSM V). However, when one's symptoms negatively impact quality of life, it is an important issue to examine.
In contrast to other weather phobia studies, our dataset (n = 298) comprised age and race demographics comparable to the general U.S. population and represents subjects from 43 states with a variety of educational backgrounds. The ages of the participants ranged from 19 to 75 (mean = 34.3; std dev = 11.1) with the plurality (46.2%) of participants being between ages 26 and 35. Of the 292 participants that reported their race, 70.2% of the participants were Caucasian, 8.9% were African-American, 12.0% were Asian, 4.8% were biracial, 3.0% were Hispanic, and 1.0% were Native American. The majority (50.3%) of participants reported having a 2- or 4-year college degree, while 29.2% and 19.1% of participants stated having a high school diploma or a graduate degree, respectively. Most participants were from California (9.7%), Florida (8.7%), New York (8.7%), Texas (6.7%), and Pennsylvania (6.4%).
Based on our broad definition of severe weather, nearly all participants (99%) had experienced some form of severe weather during their lifetime (see Table 1). The most commonly experienced severe weather events were thunderstorms (90.9%) and high winds (90.3%), followed by heavy snow and freezing rain (at approximately 80% each). As anticipated, the severe weather events described corresponded well to the regional climates and weather terminology of the participants (e.g., more heavy snow responses from those living in northern or mountainous states). Other severe weather events identified by the participants included specifying additional subcategories that emphasized either the participants' weather comprehension (e.g., blizzard) or their meteorological ignorance (e.g., describing an earthquake as a weather event).
Based on their personal experience and their frequency of anxiety behaviors during severe weather events, respondents were asked to assess whether or not they (or someone they know) had severe-weather phobia. The majority (80.5%) of participants reported that they do not suffer from severe-weather phobia, while 4.7% reported that they believe they do suffer from severe-weather phobia; the remaining respondents were “not sure.” Only 3% of our sample reported seeking treatment (professional or other self-help resources) for severe-weather phobia or in association with specific inclement weather events. Additionally, 11.7% of participants reported they know someone who suffers from severe-weather phobia. The discrepancy between individuals reporting personal severe-weather phobia versus individuals reporting knowing someone who suffers from severe-weather phobia suggests many natural environment weather phobia cases may be underreported, and that individuals are more likely to recognize possible symptoms in others rather than in themselves.
The survey also asked participants to consider how often they experienced various anxiety symptoms and behaviors surrounding severe weather, and to assess their overall fear level of severe weather (see Table 2). For comparative purposes, responses were rated using a five-category Likert scale identical to the 2006 BAMS study. In reflection of their severe weather experience(s), respondents generally reported feelings of anxiety (72%), increased heart pounding (62.9%), the need to change their schedules (60.8%), and feelings of helplessness (60.4%) at least occasionally; however, the majority of participants reported no evidence of 8 of the 14 symptoms or behaviors listed in the survey. The most common behavior reported was constant monitoring of television, radio, Internet, or weather applications during severe weather events. When asked about overall fear of severe weather, participants overwhelmingly (85.1%) reported having at least some degree of severe-weather fear, with most (46.1%) describing their fear level as “a little bit.” Approximately 10% of participants classified themselves as having an overall fear level in the “extreme” and “quite a bit” categories, possibly indicating severe-weather phobia prevalence. Only when restricting the dataset to include a sample similar to the 2006 BAMS study (e.g., Caucasian participants under age 25) were results comparable. This outcome implies that age (and life experience), race, and/or local geography are potential factors in the severity and type of severe-weather phobia. Current residency length and previous residencies, variables not explored in this pilot study, may also shape personal perceptions of weather severity and degree of local acclimatization.
Participants also answered questions about their general weather knowledge and formal meteorological education. The plurality (22.1%) of participants ranked their level of weather knowledge as a “5” on a 1 to 10 qualitative scale (with 1 being “no knowledge” and 10 being “very knowledgeable”). Moreover, 10.7% of participants rated their level of weather knowledge an “8” or higher, which corresponds to the same percentage of participants that reported having taken a weather-related course. A strong statistically significant difference (p < 0.01) was found in the level of weather knowledge between groups with no fear of severe weather and those with moderate to extreme fear; in this case, fear levels were directly related to weather knowledge. Participants who reported having taken a weather course also reported experiencing more anxiety symptoms and behaviors, particularly heart pounding, feeling anxious, the need to change their schedule, and monitoring television, radio, Internet, or weather applications during severe weather events. Schedule changes, appetite loss, nausea, and obsessiveness were all behaviors found to be significantly higher (p < 0.05) for those with some formal meteorology education than those with none. In comparison, participants who reported having never taken a formal weather course reported no evidence of any symptoms other than monitoring television, radio, Internet, or weather applications during severe weather events. These findings suggest that more weather knowledge can increase anxiety levels in some individuals, as they may have a greater understanding of the potential dangers associated with severe weather. However, the type of weather knowledge and media consumption (e.g., scientific literature versus real-time storm coverage) could be an important covariate in the relationship between weather knowledge and anxiety symptoms.
Nearly 40% of participants reported at least a “moderate” degree of overall fear of severe weather, and 85% of participants had at least “a little bit” of fear of severe weather. The present study, along with Westefeld's findings, lays the groundwork for a better understanding of the severe-weather phobia phenomena, as well as the role that weather knowledge and anxiety plays in severe-weather phobia among individuals across the United States. Additionally, results provide useful information for weather forecasters and media groups in terms of how often individuals monitor media during severe weather events. This information may be helpful in not only understanding the prevalence of emotional distress that accompanies severe weather, but also in understanding the ways in which people, in general, respond during inclement-weather events. When not debilitating, some fear can be a substantial motivator to encourage individuals to take action against the threat, such as seeking shelter.
A goal of this study was to provide preliminary data to assist future researchers in identifying treatment options for individuals who suffer from symptoms that may resemble severe-weather phobia. This study provided evidence of the prevalence rate of severe-weather phobia symptoms in order to better understand the phenomenon and design the most appropriate treatment options. Workshops, brief crisis interventions, and screening tools are among a few treatment options that have been proposed to assist psychologists and other professionals in helping individuals following exposure to severe weather events. Currently, the Red Cross provides Community Disaster presentations, free of charge, to groups, organizations, and businesses to educate communities on how to prepare for and stay safe during severe weather. These interventions can potentially reduce the occurrence of severe-weather phobia and related symptoms. More resources, including screening tools, to assist helping professionals in immediate interventions to prevent the development of symptoms are needed to identify individuals at risk for severe-weather phobia after major events occur.
The current study provides support for the use of programs to educate communities on severe weather prior to such events occurring in attempt to reduce anxiety-related symptoms during and after severe weather events. For individuals who suffer emotional distress during and after severe weather events that impact their ability to function appropriately, more research is needed on the efficacy of brief interventions following weather events to reduce the development of severe-weather phobia and related symptoms. While there is a paucity of research specifically on severe-weather phobia, other types of phobia (e.g., flying in an airplane) have been successfully treated with behavioral-based exposure therapy. These therapies help the person to lower their negative reactions to feared events and could be redesigned specifically for different weather situations.
The preliminary findings presented here confirm the limited research on severe-weather or storm phobia prevalence, demonstrate the importance of regional geography and personal experiences, and suggest avenues for further research. Our sample indicated that 2.3% of respondents have an overall extreme fear of severe weather, a proportion comparable with the general population estimates for storm-related phobias. Again, we must note that we did not assess our participants for the formal diagnosis of phobia, which is a constellation of specific symptoms as described in the DSM V. Although our sample size was too limited to conduct a meaningful analysis of group differences (i.e., race, education, age, or location), the results suggest these demographic and geographic factors are important variables that need further exploration. The objective questions highlighted large differences in weather-related anxiety symptoms and experiences that were significantly different from the homogeneous sample presented in the 2006 BAMS study. Our research also suggests that education, including level of meteorological knowledge, can possibly exacerbate severe-weather fear responses, but further exploration into the type and extent of weather knowledge is needed. Furthermore, the types of severe weather experienced and personal narratives relayed in the open-ended questions indicate geographic variability in the types of severe weather and terminology likely to induce an emotional, anxiety-driven response. Future work will focus on extracting these regional response differences to variations in severe-weather stimuli and exploring severe-weather-phobia treatment options.