Storm season in Oklahoma brings out weather anxiety

After deadly tornadoes in May 2013 in Oklahoma, storm survivors commonly experience strong feelings of anxiety, and even can develop post traumatic stress disorder.
By Heather Warlick, Staff Writer Published: May 12, 2014


photo - 
Carl and Gayla Gibson, left, look at contents of a Red Cross preparedness kit Friday with Taylor Smith, Red Cross Community Recovery and Resiliency specialist in Oklahoma City. Photo By Steve Gooch, The Oklahoman
  Steve Gooch - 
The Oklahoman
Carl and Gayla Gibson, left, look at contents of a Red Cross preparedness kit Friday with Taylor Smith, Red Cross Community Recovery and Resiliency specialist in Oklahoma City. Photo By Steve Gooch, The Oklahoman Steve Gooch - The Oklahoman

If you’ve lived in Oklahoma long enough, you likely are used to the coverage of dangerous spring weather, eyes peeled on the television or Internet as meteorologists fervently warn about the possibility of damaging storms.

For many Oklahomans, this spring’s severe weather season has arrived with some unexpected feelings. Weather anxiety is rampant after the devastation of last year’s deadly tornadoes.

Gayla and Carl Gibson, who weathered the May 20 tornado that ravaged Moore, are among the Oklahomans who now suffer from weather-induced anxiety.

They live within a few blocks of Plaza Towers Elementary School, where seven third-graders died.

When the tornado hit, Carl Gibson was at home, laid up after back surgery. Despite the pain medication, he was able to think straight and went for cover. After the freight train sound roared by, he stepped out and realized just how lucky he’d been that the worst damage to their house was a buckled fence. Everywhere around him was utter devastation.

Shortly afterward, the Gibsons started experiencing feelings of high anxiety and panic attacks.

“We didn’t know what it was at first, but we both developed panic attacks. Those eventually got easier and cleared up and pretty much stopped completely. But then as this spring rolled around, I’ve had a couple of them. They’re cropping up again,” Gayle Gibson said.

What the couple is experiencing is a form of post-traumatic stress disorder, said Terry Blaine, a mental health expert for the American Red Cross.

“Some people may have anxiety where it’s hard to breathe, hard to sleep, you even feel like crying a lot,” Blaine said.

When Gayla Gibson has a full-blown panic attack, she feels a need to flee, to run as fast as she can away from the panic, she said. Her doctor prescribed a sedative to handle the anxiety.

For the Gibsons, this was the first time in their 33 years of marriage that the two had no way to get in touch with each other and didn’t know the status of one another. That was the most stressful part of the experience, Gayla Gibson said.

It took hours for her to learn her husband was fine. She was afraid he was asleep during the tornado since his pain medication made him drowsy. Carl Gibson weathered the storm fine physically, along with the family’s three dogs and one cat, but the fear it left is taking longer to repair than their buckled fence.

Children’s anxiety

Weather anxiety can be especially hard for children to deal with because they are less likely to understand where the anxiety comes from.

Angel Beattie, of Union City, took her son, Cody, to a Red Cross preparedness class at his school where he learned about the science of tornadoes, how to stay safe and how to prepare a “go bag” of supplies you may need.

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