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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 john-westefeld@uiowa.edu, 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."