May 3, 2018

Living With Storm Anxiety as a Weather Geek

I get nervous before thunderstorms. Well, I get nervous before bad thunderstorms. For a couple of years now I've talked openly about my newfound struggle with storm anxiety. It's a weird thing to have to deal with when you love weather as much as I do and talk about it pretty much every day for a living. Publicly dealing with my storm anxiety has given me an interesting insight into how everyday people deal with thunderstorms and how meteorologists and weather enthusiasts have a giant blind spot when it comes to something they love.

I'm fine during run-of-the-mill thunderstorms. It's the wind—heck, even just the threat of wind—that gets to me. I've seen too many pictures of destroyed buildings. I've seen pictures of destroyed apartments that looked exactly like mine with a gaping hole where my bedroom would be. I've seen pictures of tornado victims. A few years ago I watched a warehouse's roof peel off across the street from me during a strong storm. I've seen tornado debris fall from the sky. Lightning and thunder and hail are unnerving but they don't bother me too much.

The wind bothers me.

I’ve had a love-hate relationship with storms all my life. I used to sit in the window as a toddler and watch lightning zap across the sky without so much of a twinge of fear. Storms started to terrify me in elementary school. I’m not sure if it was the movies Twister or Night of the Twisters (especially the latter), or the scary beeps and alerts that flew across the TV screen, but whatever spooked me as a kid grew into storm anxiety.

My storm anxiety got better once I hit high school. The fear eventually turned into a healthy obsession. I still got nervous ahead of tornadoes or bad squall lines but it was manageable. I was still excited to see storms. Going to college in Mobile, Alabama, intensified my love for storms. Even a few close calls with lightning strikes weren’t enough to completely shake me of my love for storms.

Starting in the summer of 2016, it seemed like every thunderstorm that passed through my town in central North Carolina reached its convective apogee directly over my apartment. Gone were the days of listening to the rain and rolling thunder and standing in the window for hours taking pictures of lightning. Almost every storm was severe and its worst attributes unfolded right over me.

I dubbed it #Rockinghaming on Twitter. That was my way of making light of the endless stream of sky-rage that seemed to inflict its pain specifically on our county and nowhere else in the area. Over the course of a year and a half, we've had two destructive microbursts, numerous extended power outages, a couple of hailstorms, lightning that destroyed a clock radio, two rounds of flash flooding, and a tornado that passed within a couple of miles of where I live and dropped a significant amount of debris on our apartment complex.

I know that my renewed fear of bad thunderstorms stems from living on the top floor of a wood-framed apartment building. It's the wind. I'm afraid that the roof is going to peel away or a tornado will scrub away everything I know. Even if I know that's probably not going to happen, the nervousness still takes hold.



I’ve always been an anxious person. Most of my fears have been and still are totally ridiculous. They all relate to emergencies in one way or another. I was terrified of the Emergency Alert System as a kid. I would have nightmares about the sound and the unnecessarily-apocalyptic screen Comcast chose to flash on every channel during an alert. I got over it (though the sound can still induce chills).

A fear of fire alarms that developed in elementary school has stuck with me the longest. (I know, right?) The best way I’ve found to describe it is an intense fear of being startled. A fear about fear! How odd. I learned to manage it a bit as I've gotten older, but I still struggle with it.

It makes my renewed storm anxiety feel like one of the more normal things about me. It’s also made me hyper-aware of how many other people get nervous when thunderstorms are in the forecast. I have a relative who sometimes sits in the bathroom during a bad lightning storm. I have friends on Facebook who can only bring themselves to post a worried emoji with a copy of the Storm Prediction Center’s latest outlook.

When we were under a risk for tornadoes a couple of weeks ago, I jokingly tweeted that my anxiety kept telling me that a delayed forecast by the SPC was the forecasters painting the highest tornado risk over me. Later that day, as I watched a confirmed tornado roll toward me on radar, I forgot all about being nervous and became laser-focused on staying safe. That’s not to say that I won’t be nervous during the next storms. But knowing that my mind switches into safety mode when I’m in actual danger feels like a positive step.

Blind Spots


My newfound (re-found?) storm anxiety informs the way I talk and think about the weather now. It makes storms more of a human event than a natural event for me. It's disappointing to see folks in weather speak about storm anxiety with derision or indifference.

Viewers and readers with storm anxiety are an enormous blind spot for meteorologists and weather reporters. It's more than just the jitters. Why would someone be nervous over something so cool? I get it.

I used to get a little excited when I saw a big severe weather outbreak on the horizon or a picture-perfect hurricane buzzsawing its way across the Atlantic. It’s instinctively thrilling for a weather enthusiast to witness the most furious conditions nature can produce. Nature is a beautiful force. But there's a human cost.

It’s upsetting to see weather enthusiasts cheer for tornadoes. Tornadoes are photogenic and tornadoes over open fields with a beautiful backdrop are gorgeous images. They’re still tornadoes. Openly hoping for a tornado outbreak isn’t the best optics for a field whose pitch to gain the public trust is predicated on serving and helping people. How are we serving or helping when we’re expressing delight over an event that could destroy homes and cost people their lives?

I'm well aware that people who get excited over bad weather aren't hoping that people die or lose their homes. But imagine being someone who actually lost a loved one or lost their home in a tornado or someone who lives with storm anxiety and follows a bunch of meteorologists to calm their nerves only to see a steady stream of posts excitedly hoping for big tornadoes or massive squall lines.

I’m also well aware that people who root for bad storms aren't jinxing it. The weather is going to happen whether or not those people cheer it or ignore it or even if those people didn’t exist.

It’s a matter of sensitivity and professionalism. Whether it's intended or not, they're actively conveying to people in the path of the storm—who may very well be looking to those professionals for information—that it's more a matter of personal entertainment and fascination than an issue of life or death seriousness.

The effect is more pronounced when someone in harm's way suffers from storm anxiety. Lots of people with storm anxiety follow lots of meteorologists and weather enthusiasts to keep up with weather and assuage their concerns by staying in-the-know.

What we say and do in public has an effect on other people and it reflects poorly on ourselves and our field when we express glee over something that could ultimately exact a human cost. We can’t and shouldn’t police people’s thoughts and emotions. At the same time, it's important to carefully measure our words when dangerous weather is on the horizon. It's a matter of what should and shouldn't be kept to ourselves.

It's natural for someone who loves the weather to stand in awe of a storm and gawk at radar and satellite. That shines through and everyone understands it. When we get eager for a severe weather outbreak and express delight at the chance for tornadoes, though, that negates so much of the seriousness and solemnity of the work we try to convince people is worth paying attention to.

I have no doubt that the folks who would benefit from heeding this advice the most are going to be the first to brush off my concerns and mock them. I can only hope that it's enough to give pause and maybe even some hesitation during the next severe weather outbreak.

Help Is Available


One of the most prominent meteorologists to discuss storm anxiety online is Rick Smith, the Warning Coordination Meteorologist for the NWS office in Norman, Oklahoma. Central Oklahoma is one of the most storm-prone regions of the country. The area has seen multiple devastating tornadoes in the past 20 years. Hail larger than baseballs and wind gusts stronger than 80 MPH aren't uncommon here.

The efforts of Smith and his office to help residents in central Oklahoma deal with their storm anxiety were recently covered in a fantastic article written by Nomin Ujiyediin for Oklahoma City's NPR station KGOU. The interview drives home just how many people are affected by storm anxiety:

Some people call several times a day, asking the same questions over and over. Others message the National Weather Service on Twitter and Facebook every few minutes for hours at a time.

“People are very clearly disturbed and bothered and upset by just the forecast of a severe storm. It’s not that they’re scared of the storm, they’re scared seven days before the storm ever gets here, and that’s prevalent,” Smith said.

These interactions happen so frequently that Smith and others in the Norman office decided they needed to address storm anxiety in the community. The Weather Service has begun posting mental health resources on its social media to a warm reception from followers. And the Norman office has reached out to specialists who see the effects of disasters on mental health, both immediately and over the long term.

There is help available for people who struggle with storm anxiety. You're not alone. Staying aware of the situation is the most important thing any of us can do. Completely ignoring the threat just puts you at risk of missing a critical warning. Talking about it helps. People who genuinely care about you will listen. Finding distractions helps. I listen to music to deal with bad storms. (Smooth jazz is a favorite, but it's a little on the nose.)

The Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA) is a federal agency that offers assistance and services for people who have storm anxiety or issues coping with the aftermath of a disaster.

If you're struggling to deal with storm anxiety or the aftermath of a disaster, you can reach SAMHSA's disaster distress helpline day or night by calling 1-800-985-5990. You can also text TalkWithUs to 66746 to speak with a counselor.

The agency's website has extensive resources available for folks who have trouble dealing with storms or other disasters, including warning signs and coping tips.

[both photos taken by me]

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I graduated from the University of South Alabama in 2014 with a degree in political science and a minor in meteorology. I ran Gawker's The Vane for two years and I've contributed to Mental Floss, Forbes, Popular Science, and the Washington Post's Capital Weather Gang. I also teamed up with Outdoor Life to write a book called The Extreme Weather Survival Manual, which came out in October 2015.

3 comments:

  1. Thanks for sharing your story. I have been fearful of "bad" storms (mainly those accompanied by tornado warnings) since age 10. I'm 52 now, so that's a long time of recurring tornado nightmares. The local radio station where I grew up had a guy whose warning delivery manner was enough to scare my mom, which in turn is enough to scare a little kid. The weird NWS radio tones and abrupt cut-ins on TV contributed a lot to my anxiety.

    My fear level has waxed and waned over the years. When I was 13 there was actually a small tornado in our town (other side of town and we happened to be out of town when it happened), and after that event I was less scared for a few years. Then the 1984 Barneveld tornado happened - a middle of the night, pre-Doppler F5 that wiped out most of that village. That shook me up a lot and put me on high alert again.

    I've had NWS spotter training, which helped a lot because now I know that clouds can look scary without actually rotating and being a tornado threat. Still, my most common recurring nightmare is being caught somewhere unsafe with sirens going and at least one funnel in the distance.

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  2. We have very few tornadoes in Delaware - three, I think, in my whole life - and if there were more, Dennis, don't tell me. But I've been mortally afraid of them since the first time I saw one on TV. Silly but true.

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  3. Good post. I really do feel for people with weather-related anxiety and I think it’s unsurprising after someone has had a terrible experience.

    Our family is primarily composed of weather geeks. One of my grandfathers was a meteorologist with the National Weather Bureau and camped out in Wichita Falls for a year in (I think) 1958 with a surplus military Doppler waiting for a tornado. He and his partner got lucky and they ultimately showed that Doppler radar could detect tornado activity. Anyway, it runs in the family.

    As a child I was fascinated by weather and was tutored by my father. I learned to have a very healthy respect for storms but not to fear them irrationally. Because I read everything I could get my hands on about storms my nightmares generally involved (1) being caught in an open field without shelter and a tornado approaching, or (2) being at our beach house in FL as a hurricane storm surge cut off our escape route.

    As a nurse I am all too aware of the human element in storm destruction and I would be thrilled if every tornado and microburst stuck to uninhabited fields and every hurricane turned out to sea. I think it crass to “wish for” destructive storms; I only wish to be a witness when the inevitable happens.

    This has become rambling, but I do want to finish by saying that this post is well-written and needful, and I think it’s great that mental health assistance information is posted alongside severe weather coverage in Norman. Hopefully this will become more widespread.

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