April 10, 2013

Vanderbilt experts offer tips for minimizing storm stress

Last year, 37 tornadoes ripped through the state of Tennessee. Vanderbilt University Medical Center experts are offering tips on how to minimize storm stress and how to prepare in case a storm displaces you from your home.


Story by Paula Jones

Spring storm season is approaching. Each year, the season brings fear and anxiety to many residents of the Southeast, including Middle Tennessee.

Last year, 37 tornadoes ripped through the state of Tennessee, 258 storms produced damaging hail, and 565 thunderstorms left significant wind damage in their wake, according to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.

Vanderbilt University Medical Center experts are offering tips on how to minimize storm stress and how to prepare in case a storm displaces you from your home.

“Things that are unpredictable tend to be the most anxiety provoking,” said Todd Peters, assistant professor of psychiatry. “This anxiety particularly affects children, because they do not understand how weather works and they focus on the especially destructive things that storms can do.”

While this fear is “developmentally appropriate,” Peters said parents and caregivers can take some simple steps to ease these concerns, such as having an emergency plan in place for the children to follow in the event of a tornado.

“[rquote]Children understand that following certain rules leads to predictable outcomes,” he said. “Having a plan to follow makes children feel like they have some control over the outcome of the storm.”[/rquote]

The plan can include developing a grab-and-go family disaster kit with items such as dried and canned food, bottled or packaged water, blankets, flashlights, extra batteries, personal hygiene items, important paperwork and a weather radio, and designating a safe place as a shelter, Peters said.

Peters also recommended “demystifying weather” before a storm by talking about how regularly storms do occur and how it is rare that deaths are involved.

During bad weather, parents and caregivers can attempt to “normalize the situation,” he said, by telling stories, playing games with children, and reading books aloud—anything that will distract them from what is happening around them.

Having some nightmares or other behavioral disturbances after a storm can be normal, particularly if it was more traumatic than a simple thunderstorm. Parents should consider letting their children speak with a mental health professional if they are having a hard time functioning in school, are refusing to sleep alone (if they were sleeping alone before) or are throwing tantrums or becoming upset for little or no reason.

Pam Hoffner, VUMC’s director of Emergency Preparedness and Response, said there’s also a fair amount of preparation that can be done early on, including compiling crucial family medical and contact information and making copies of documents such as birth certificates and wills.

Hoffner suggests preparing an emergency health information sheet for every member of your family. The sheet should include each person’s name, birth date, blood type, allergies, medical conditions, current medications and dosages, medical insurance information and insurance policy information and emergency contact information for someone both in and out of state.

It’s also important to store copies of important papers such as birth certificates, tax information, health records and the deed to your home in two places—one with a friend or family member in town and the other with a friend or family member who lives out of state.

And every family should have an agreed upon and practiced family evacuation plan. “This is something that you think about in second or third grade, but then don’t think about again,” she said. “You can’t count on others for preparedness. You have to take responsibility to protect you and your loved ones.”