To fear or not to fear?

Many peo­ple are in­cred­i­bly scared of se­vere weather

Annapolis Valley Register - - NEWS - SALTWIRE NET­WORK ANTIGO­NISH, N.S.

Tor­na­dos of the type that ripped through the Ot­tawa-Gatineau re­gion late last month aren’t the norm.

But if you ask Cana­di­ans what storm they’re most afraid of, odds are you’re likely to hear the mere threat of such phe­nom­ena fright­ens them more than any­thing else Mother Na­ture can throw at them.

“Tor­na­dos, as one might imag­ine, loom large in peo­ple’s minds be­cause of movies and be­cause of sto­ries like Dorothy and the Wizard of Oz,” says Dr. Margo Watt, pro­fes­sor of psy­chol­ogy at St FX Univer­sity in Antigo­nish.

Watt has spent the bet­ter part of a decade study­ing the fears as­so­ci­ated with se­vere weather and is con­sid­ered a leader in re­search on the sub­ject. With the 15th an­niver­sary of hur­ri­cane Juan just rec­og­nized, on Sept. 29, Watt took some time to share how storms af­fect peo­ple men­tally.

One thing is clear – and her re­search re­veals it – peo­ple process storms dif­fer­ently. Some peo­ple cower un­der their beds when a storm hits; oth­ers stand on the edge of the ocean to watch the waves crash in. Some­where in the mid­dle are peo­ple who have a healthy fear of storms who learn from the ex­pe­ri­ence to bet­ter pre­pare for the fu­ture.

“The av­er­age in­di­vid­ual who gets through this event learns how to pre­pare bet­ter. We tend to in­te­grate it into be­ing bet­ter pre­pared. Then we’re hope­fully re­duc­ing our risk for a trau­matic in­ci­dent.”

Ex­am­ples might be peo­ple who bought gen­er­a­tors to be pre­pared in case of a power out­age af­ter Juan, or peo­ple in Que­bec who put in al­ter­na­tive heat sources af­ter ice storms that left peo­ple without heat for days.

But there are ex­cep­tions.

Storm chasers

Watt said pro­fes­sional storm chasers seem to have be­come pop­u­lar af­ter the Sec­ond World War when for­mer pi­lots started go­ing out to gather data in the midst of ex­treme weather.

To­day there are many recre­ational storm chasers and some places in the U.S. even of­fer peo­ple the op­por­tu­nity to take part in a storm chase as a form of tourism.

“They’re not so much sen­sa­tion seek­ers as they are ex­pe­ri­ence chasers,” she said. “They don’t like to be bored. They like to add to their ex­pe­ri­ences.”


There is, how­ever, a cer­tain sub­set of the pop­u­la­tion that are at great risk of ex­pe­ri­enc­ing men­tal health symp­toms in the af­ter­math of a storm. These are peo­ple who al­ready ex­pe­ri­ence high anx­i­ety or have a ten­dency to, Watt said. These peo­ple are more likely to suf­fer post trau­matic stress af­ter liv­ing through a ma­jor storm or any form of trau­matic in­ci­dent.

Her re­search in­di­cates about two to three per cent of the pop­u­la­tion are at risk for se­vere weather pho­bia, while about 10 per cent show mod­er­ate to high fear.

What’s in­ter­est­ing is that many of these peo­ple are fear­ful, even though they’ve never been im­pacted by a se­vere storm.

“The fear isn’t what they’ve been ex­posed to,” she said, adding that it’s what they’re hear­ing about.

She said peo­ple tend to buy into pre-storm cov­er­age.

“We el­e­vate the alarm,” she said, even in sit­u­a­tions where there isn’t likely to be a long-term ef­fect.

“As some­one who has worked in the anx­i­ety field for a long time and this is my area of ex­per­tise and re­search, I’m al­ways sort of mind­ful of the ex­treme lan­guage and the hy­per­bole.”

Sur­viv­ing a storm

Those who do truly live through a ma­jor storm can suf­fer acute stress or post trau­matic stress as a re­sult. These peo­ple can be­come hyper­vig­i­lant about weather or be­come ex­tremely fear­ful and as a re­sult avoid storms at all cost.

“They’re go­ing to en­gage in avoid­ance be­hav­iours,” she said. “They’ll can­cel all ap­point­ments. They may hide un­der­neath their bed.”

As a psy­chol­o­gist, though, she ad­vises against avoid­ance or dis­trac­tion tech­niques. While those may help in the short term, for peo­ple with an un­healthy fear, she said the best ap­proach is a grad­ual in­tro­duc­tion into storms.

She would rec­om­mend if some­one has an un­healthy fear that they start rein­tro­duc­tion by talk­ing about storms, and then maybe progress to look­ing at pic­tures or videos and so on.

Ed­u­ca­tion is key, she said. The more peo­ple know about storms, the less afraid they tend to be.

She said cog­ni­tive be­havioural ther­apy can help ed­u­cate peo­ple about their own fear and al­lows peo­ple to iden­tify the thoughts that keep them fear­ful. While these in­di­vid­u­als tend to think about the worst-case sce­nario, ther­apy can help them re­cal­i­brate their risk as­sess­ments, she added.

Chil­dren and storms Par­ents in par­tic­u­lar can play a cru­cial role in help­ing their chil­dren de­velop a proper mind­set to­wards se­vere weather.

“My re­search clearly in­di­cates the po­tency of par­ents when it comes to all types of fears,” Watt said. “We want to be care­ful not to model fear.”

When kids are around, peo­ple should be care­ful to not talk in cat­a­strophic terms about the storms. Par­ents should ex­plain about the weather event and what prepa­ra­tions are done.

“Help them put it in per­spec­tive in an age ap­pro­pri­ate way.”

Story books can be a great way to talk about the sub­ject. The key is to help them in­te­grate it into their ex­pe­ri­ence so they feel an el­e­ment of con­trol.

On­go­ing re­search

As Watt con­tin­ues her re­search about psy­chol­ogy and se­vere weather she is cur­rently work­ing on a new sur­vey called: Per­son­al­ity & Fear of Se­vere Weather. The project will ex­am­ine peo­ple’s ex­po­sure to and ex­pe­ri­ence with se­vere weather events, in­clud­ing the salience of weather in their daily lives, and the role of per­son­al­ity traits as po­ten­tial risk and/ or re­siliency fac­tors. To find out more or take part visit https:// stfx. qualtrics. com/ jfe/ form/ SV_9F69DOwNJ2XyEoB


Dr. Margo Watt is a pro­fes­sor of psy­chol­ogy and Jules Léger Re­search chair­woman at St. Fran­cis Xavier Univer­sity in Antigo­nish.

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