April 29, 2015

Vanderbilt psychiatrist says demystifying weather can help ease anxiety during spring storms


For many, springtime brings more than April showers and May flowers. Each year, the season brings fear and anxiety to many tornado- and storm-fearing residents of the Southeast, including Middle Tennessee.

According to the National Weather Service, 469 individual tornadoes have been catalogued in Middle Tennessee since 1830. In the past decade, during which time the National Weather Service has increased its emphasis on documentation and storm surveys, Middle Tennessee has averaged nearly 16 tornadoes annually.

Vanderbilt University Medical Center experts offer 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.

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.”

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 nightmares or other behavioral disturbances after a storm can be normal, particularly if the weather event 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.

Jeff Mangrum, Administrative Coordinator of Vanderbilt University Medical Center’s Department of Emergency Preparedness, said there’s also preparation that can be done well before storm season, including compiling crucial family medical and contact information and making copies of documents such as birth certificates and wills.

Mangrum 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,” he said. “You can’t count on others for preparedness. You have to take responsibility to protect you and your loved ones.”