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SCHMIDT: A fear of storms, or a storm of fears?

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By Paul Schmidt

Recently, local storms have ripped away people’s lives, homes and downtown landscapes. The damage of property and casualty has been obvious, staggering. The damage to hearts and minds has been insidious, and sometimes, paralyzing.

At what point does a fear of storms become a pathology in need of treatment? What causes these fears to get out of hand, and what can bring them back under control?

There is nothing wrong, weak or crazy about having a fear of storms. It is common and practical, and therefore normal. A phobia on the other hand, is an exaggerated, illogical, and morbid (life-robbing) fear. Two examples are the fear of thunderstorms (brontophobia) and the fear of tornadoes (lolapsophobia).

To me, a fear is morbid when it immobilizes and disturbs adults to make them act like helpless, dependent children again. Here, I will call such a fear an Excessive Fear of Storms, an EFS.

One cause of EFS is an anxious temperament, a predisposition to feel and express fear. It appears this can be inherited, learned, or both.

A second cause is one or more painful memories of having been left alone during a bad storm as a child, with nothing to comfort or distract the child from fears of abandonment, injury, and death.

A third cause is the most toxic, having been pulled close during a storm into the arms of a panicky adult, someone suffering from EFS, someone who passes it on.

We know that a tornado is a column of wind, swiftly swirling around in circles, sucking everything around it into the emptiness of the vacuum inside. We also know that people whose EFS is most contagious are those whose lifestyle and soul are so empty of faith, life, and purpose that they are paralyzed by oncoming storms.

They experience their thoughts going round and round in circles, so they pull people in to comfort them. It’s ironic isn't it, how much adults who are most afraid of tornadoes can sometimes bear a striking resemblance to them? These are the folks who have not so much a fear of storms as a storm of fears.

Besides going to see a counselor or getting medication, what can someone do to develop a healthier coping strategy for a fear of storms?

First, one can get some counseling to deal with underlying fears of abandonment, disability, death, and the fear of fear itself, panic. (Write drpaul@mynewlife.comfor some free resources to fight these fears.)

Secondly, everyone needs a plan of action, one that is approved by others who don't suffer from EFS. This should not include much sitting around passively watching the weather reports as the storms approach. Don’t let your fear mount up with the rising voice pitches of the meteorologists on TV.

The plan should include protecting dependents, by actively preparing them and their environment to provide protection when the time to seek shelter has come. It should include a logical set of formulas to determine when it is time to seek shelter, so your fear levels don't make the call. (If you have no dependents at hand, you can at last and at least take care of your own inner child.)

The plan also should include the orderly behavior of walking around the house attending to normal chores, keeping one eye and ear on getting things done while the other can watch TV. Once in a safe place, it should include things to do while being sheltered, to relax and distract the mind from too much attention to the radio or television in the bunker.

The role we need to play for the scared child inside us, and for any real children around us, is the role of a fifth-grade school teacher: communicating calm, and instructing those who trust us how to seek shelter at the appropriate time in the appropriate way, without upsetting themselves or their neighbors. (If you can't do this, there's no use playing the thunderstorm edition of Are You Smarter than a Fifth Grader?)

The third part of the plan is to work it. Again like the tornado drill at school, it is helpful to walk through the paces of what you will be doing a few times before there's a real storm at hand. This way, when the storm does come, you can follow a habit. Otherwise, you will follow your old habits of learned helplessness.

The final part of the plan is a purpose, the faith that you, God, and all the people you trust are building a better life for yourself and your family. This fills the void inside, and distracts you from your panic. This way, after your loved ones hear the sound of sirens coming from the fire stations, they don't have to hear a giant sucking sound coming from you. Your dedication to leave the world a better place can now include raising children and grandchildren to have more mental health and confidence than you do, starting with a healthy, proactive fear of storms.

 

Dr. Paul Schmidt is a psychologist life coach with offices in Middletown, Lexington and Shelbyville and can be reached at www.mynewlife.com.