Meteorologist Rick Smith can remember he’s been fascinated by weather. His wife actually found a little weather forecast he did in first grade; it’s framed in Rick’s office at the National Weather Service’s Norman Forecast Office.
So, yes, Rick’s always been into weather. For instance, when “The Wizard of Oz” used to come on TV once a year, Rick remembers watching until the tornado swept Dorothy away, and then he’d lose interest. But, at the same time, he was terrified of it
A Weather Man with Weather Anxiety
“I don’t know when my weather anxiety started, but it was an intense fear that continued all the way up into my early teens,” he said. “It was worse at night, very much worse at night, and it was just anything associated with thunderstorms. I dreamed about tornadoes all the time. When I felt like that, I felt out of control from second-to-second. You wonder when the next lightning flash will be, and you know that if you’re in a tornado watch, there are tornadoes just prowling out there in the dark. It’s a lack of control. It’s a fear of the unknown.”
Now it’s Rick’s job as a warning coordination meteorologist to manage hazardous weather preparedness, outreach and education activities for the Norman office’s 56-county area of responsibility. This includes talking with people experiencing weather anxiety, which can include emotional and physical symptoms such as headaches, muscle tension, insomnia, and nausea for days or even weeks afterward. As serious as these symptoms can be, Rick understands that some people do not seek help because of the stigma of weather anxiety.
“A lot of the things that we sort of run into is people who are ashamed that they have weather anxiety,” he said. “They feel foolish or they think it’s silly that they’re afraid of the sky when it turns dark. I’m pretty sure I felt that stigma, too, because if I was in a situation with friends, where maybe I was spending the night at someone’s house and some storms came up, I had to really pull it together. I couldn’t act as scared and panicky as I did at home. I remember specifically in fourth grade, we had a situation where we had to take cover from a tornado and inside I was losing my mind probably, but I couldn’t show it because I felt shame and embarrassment.”
Becoming an Advocate
In his role at the Weather Service, Rick talks to people in public and on social media. He has this message for each of them:
“I want them to realize that they’re not alone and help is available,” he said. “I tell them that I am a meteorologist and I used to feel just like they did. For that typing in a Facebook message, you can just feel through the screen their sense of relief that they’re really not alone.”
Rick dealt with weather anxiety until his early teens and then overcame it. The question is: How did he do that?
“All through elementary and into middle school, I was still just obsessed and fascinated with tornadoes,” he said. “I would write letters to the Weather Service and get it to send me brochures. There was no internet to go look at tornado videos, so there was just this hunger for all that information. During the day I’d be sitting there going over all this tornado stuff, but then if a siren went on at night, it’s like all of a sudden that’s the worst thing in the world. I don’t know where it ended. As I got older, it was even more embarrassing and less cool to be that freaked out by storms, so I just learned to deal with it. I wish I had some of the weather anxiety counseling that’s available today.”
Smith’s Advice for People Experiencing Weather Anxiety
“We rely on TV stations to help get our information out. For some people, watching TV coverage continuously for days before a severe weather event makes them feel more informed and more in control of their situation. But for others, TV coverage can be more stressful than the weather itself. Only you know what works for you, so if it helps, use it. If it stresses you out, maybe look for other ways to get weather information.”
As for referring people to services, after the May 2013 tornadoes, Rick said, “I knew Mental Health Association Oklahoma was doing great work helping people connect to weather anxiety counseling, so that’s been a wonderful resource to direct people to. We have a lot of materials on our National Weather Service website that we’ve developed, and we refer them to FEMA, Ready.gov and Oklahoma Emergency Management. Actually, after 2013 I started working into our materials some elements of the mental health side of things, trying to encourage people, or convince people, that the more you prepare in advance, the less stressful this situation will be.”
As Rick likes to say: “Every minute spent preparing on a sunny day can reduce your stress levels or your anxiety levels.”