It’s coming up to that time of year in many places of the country — tornado season. The southern states have already experienced some storms; Oklahoma was struck by a deadly twister just before Valentine’s Day. Yes, it’s time to get the flashlights, portable radios, and your tornado safety plan ready. It’s also time to get your severe weather stress plan in place.
For those of you who experience hurricanes each summer and fall, this is your respite time. You won’t really need to be ready for another few months at least. However, even you need to watch for tornadoes and dangerous lightning. Severe thunderstorms can get stirred up so quickly, it really pays to be watchful. Regardless of your particular peril, the mental aspect of severe weather can be harsh.
I’m no meteorologist, but I did grow up on a farm. We knew that bad weather was something to be respected. It could result in the loss of life and the loss of a livelihood. This is true in many parts of the country, though people in the famed Tornado Alley are particularly on the alert when spring rolls around.
Different Kinds of Mental Stress From Severe Weather
To be fully prepared for the severe weather season, it is helpful to recognize a few different types of mental stress that can occur. First, there is anticipatory stress. You know there is a watch box over your county, and you are wondering what would happen if you got caught on the interstate in a storm later today. This stress is often minor, manageable, and can motivate you to plan ahead. Altering your plans can reduce this stress so you feel more in control and with good access to a safe location.
When you anticipate bad weather and relatively little happens, this sense of alert can come and go quickly with little effect. As long as you don’t hear that loud beep on the TV and you don’t see bad clouds, you are likely to get distracted and not get too worried. When you have repeated alerts week after week or all night long, this can get exhausting. It is difficult and draining to pay so much attention to an impending threat. Even if nothing happens, eight hours of close calls can be nervewracking.
Another kind of severe weather stress is an acute experience. Your house gets hit by a tornado and you go into shock. Your town’s siren goes off, you dive to the basement, waiting in terror through the hailstorm and hoping you don’t hear the sounds of destruction over your head. You are on vacation and get a call from family as they experience the full brunt of a destructive storm in your hometown.
All of these experiences can be fully charged with emotion, adrenaline, and stark images or sounds. You may have a hard time getting that siren sound to stop ringing in your head. You may start getting jittery when you hear the wind pick up, remembering how the wind sounded after it blasted through your living room window. You may not be able to sleep for all the worries, feelings, and questions you have in your mind after the storm has blown through.
In the aftermath of a destructive storm, the drama gradually fades. Buildings get repaired, tree limbs get picked up, glass gets vacuumed out of carpets, and the rescue teams leave town. But for you, the emotional toll keeps on going. You might start reconsidering where you live, reconsidering your career, staying away from social activities because you are still in a funk. The storm has blown holes in your sense of peace, and you are having trouble regaining that.
This kind of prolonged stress can lead to bouts of depression. You may be experiencing PTSD if you have flashbacks, the sensation that you are right back in the situation, and all the emotions that go with it. Emotional scars often take longer to heal than physical ones. It may be hard to talk about it because some people have moved on from it. You might feel embarrassed to say that it’s still got you down. You may not know how you are going to get through the rest of the severe weather season in this kind of mental state.
Any kind of stress from severe weather season can become overwhelming. Getting yourself prepared can give you a better sense of control. Any control you have can help you stay calm in the moment of high drama. Here are some tips to get you started.
- Get your supplies ready. Have the proper physical supplies and safe location ready before the season starts. If you need to clean out that basement closet again, then now is the time to do it. Get out your flashlights, check batteries, get extra blankets for cover, and get a few containers of nonperishable food like nuts, crackers, and dried fruit.
You really don’t want to be racing around the house trying to find batteries for the radio while the sirens are blaring. You can’t stop the storm from doing what it will do. But you can make the safety plan simple and quick. That gives you the best chance to be as safe as you can.
- Get your distractions ready. Along with your physical supplies, make either a physical or mental list of some self-calming activities. Does deep breathing help you? Would you be comforted by a few religious items? Do you have small children who need distraction? These might be simple rhyming games, small reminder notes, or even a deck of cards.
Sometimes a tornado warning means you need to be in a safety area for several minutes on end. High emotion will keep you focused for a short while. But if it becomes prolonged, stress can get the better of you and those with you. Again, relaxation won’t change the path of the storm, but it can affect how well you endure the waiting process. Even if nothing bad happens, several minutes of feeling highly nervous and agitated can affect you long after the tornado warning has expired. If you are a parent, your children will sleep better that night if they see you as calm and reassuring.
- Talk to someone. If you find that your stress and emotions have taken over, it might be time to seek help. Sometimes just talking to a pastor or close friends can help. If not, a short period of mental health counseling may be more useful. One thing to keep in mind – it’s best not to make rash decisions when severe weather stress is running high. You may be using your emotions to make your choices rather than your good sense.
The tornado and hurricane seasons can be long and grueling. How many times can you board up your windows week after week? How many times must you go track the radar, hear the siren go off at all hours, and drag sleeping children to the basement? It can seem never-ending, prompting frustration and emotional exhaustion. You may not be able to avoid all the stress that comes from severe storms, but you can make it through until the storm clouds finally roll out of town.
Krull, E. (2009). The Stress of Severe Weather. Psych Central. Retrieved on May 24, 2013, from http://psychcentral.com/lib/2009/the-stress-of-severe-weather/
Last reviewed: By John M. Grohol, Psy.D. on 30 Jan 2013
Published on PsychCentral.com. All rights reserved.