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Tornadoes, strong storms can stir up mental health challenges

Dayton Daily News - 3/3/2024

Mar. 2—Living through a tornado or powerful winds can be traumatizing for adults and children for years after a storm hits. Any quick weather changes, loud noises or storm warnings can spark anxious responses in people.

The five tornadoes that touched down early Wednesday in Ohio, including two in this region, may have brought up difficult memories of the 2019 Memorial Day tornadoes that ravaged the Dayton area or other recent storms.

"Depending on the impact that it had on them in their life, there's certainly an increased chance that a repeat incident of the same kind of event could be traumatizing or retraumatizing," said Dr. Fadi Tayim, director of the Brain Mapping Center at the Premier Health Clinical Neuroscience Institute.

Someone experiencing an anxious response may notice if they become more agitated or irritable, or they become shaky or sweaty.

"Weather anxiety and trauma definitely can manifest in various ways, and certainly can be triggered by those past experiences, such as the tornadoes that we had," said Julie Manuel, Kettering Health Behavioral Medical Center clinical program manager.

Hypervigilance and vivid flashbacks are other trauma symptoms people should be on the lookout for if they are concerned they're having a trauma response, along with other physiological changes that impact social or occupational functioning.

"Sometimes the anticipation of the event is even worse than the event," Tayim said.

Post-traumatic stress disorder treatment is established in the field of psychology, he said, so doctors can help people find relief of their symptoms, such as with medications and counseling.

If people are experiencing dysfunction, such as not being able to go to work, they should seek support from a mental health professional, their community, and/or other support system, Manuel said.

"Staying informed is really important," Manuel said. Being aware of coming storms can help manage anxiety.

"Any time that you're starting to experience symptoms that are creating any type of dysfunction in your life, I do think that it's important to prepare ahead of time," Manuel said.

For those who may not be living with PTSD but are still experiencing stress or unease, people can prioritize their mental health by making sure they have plans in place for how to respond to future storms, as well as by not spending too much time dwelling on dangerous storms, health providers say.

"Now that it's over, it's probably not in their best interest to keep watching the storm reports over and over," said Kelly Rigger, CEO of Mental Health Service of Clark and Madison Counties.

Families should be prepared and know where everybody in the home should go when they need to seek shelter, including who will be grabbing the pets, Rigger said.

Storm plans are useful in reassuring kids that the adults in their lives will keep them safe.

Families can talk to children about what happens when there is a tornado warning and where in the house they will go take shelter at, said said Dr. Julie Stucke, a child psychologist at Dayton Children's.

If children are fearful, parents should be honest with their kids about any impending storms when looking at weather forecasts, while also reassuring them of their safety.

"We have storms, but we're going to keep you safe during the storm," Stucke said.

Parents can talk to their children about what to expect during storms, such as lightning and loud noises, so kids know what to expect during storms.

"There's a lot of sensory experiences that come along with weather events that sometimes we don't anticipate," Manuel said.

"It might also be a good idea if you have kids who are really scared of just thunderstorms to have a safe place to go during those non-emergencies," Stucke said.

For storms that aren't dangerous but might be loud, parents may want to establish a place in the house where children can go to feel safe, such as a room without windows or a basement.

Families can put together storm kits, such as puzzles, fidget toys, books, markers, etc., to help distract childrenduring storms.

"One of the most important things, though, is that parents have to know that they really need to remain calm during the storms, because kids really take their cues from their parents," Stucke said.

Children are more likely to feel at ease if a parent is staying calm during the situation, she said.


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