Fredric Neuman M.D.

Fighting Fear

Fear of the Weather

Searching for safety

Posted Sep 21, 2015

I grew up in Manhattan, and I do not remember anyone ever discussing the weather—unless there was a hurricane coming, or a blizzard. In fact, I remember once, during a hurricane, going downstairs to buy a newspaper. I went for a piano lesson during a blizzard. Day-to-day weather never impacted our lives and, therefore, was uninteresting. Since I grew up at a time before air-conditioning, I took very hot weather in stride. Heat waves were reported in the newspaper, but I paid no attention. Rain went unnoticed.  I walked only a couple of blocks to a subway or a bus and from there only a couple of blocks to school. If it rained, I walked quickly. I don’t think my family owned an umbrella. Since I drive now, I still rarely carry an umbrella. If I think now to take an umbrella someplace, I do not remember to take it home again. I wear a baseball cap so my glasses won’t get wet.

 God knows, I worried irrationally about many things—health, for instance—but neither my family nor I noticed the weather.

It came as a surprise to me that my patients did pay close attention to the weather. I remember one woman who looked up the weather every morning for a city five hundred miles away so she could telephone her daughter, who was attending college there, and warn her about the need to wear warm clothing or a raincoat or mittens. She did this every day. More than one anxious patient prevented their grown children from driving if it was raining. Snow was a reason to stay indoors for days at a time. Not infrequently, I would listen to a message on my answering machine suggesting we change our appointment next week to a different day because of the threat of bad weather. How could they know the weather a week ahead of time when I could not be sure of what it was at just that moment? (My office chair faces away from the window.) Of course, what they were all concerned about was the danger of inclement weather. Why?

“The weatherman said I shouldn’t go out today unless I had to.” (Because the roads were slick, or the heat and humidity were too high, or because of the high winds.)

“Listen,” I told them. “The weatherman is in the business of frightening people. If he didn’t pretend to be giving useful advice, no one would need a weatherman.”

“Didn’t you hear about that multiple car accident last week on the throughway?” they respond.

“Yes, I know there are accidents all the time, and sometimes they happen because of really bad weather, but the weather is always too hot or cold, too wet or windy, too overcast or too something else. You can’t stay indoors all the time. Drive slowly. And, by the way, certainly it is okay to walk outside in bad weather if you walk carefully.”

Often, I would take the patient to the window and demonstrate that on a day when, according to the weatherman, everyone should stay home, in fact the streets were full of people walking and automobiles proceeding at their usual speed. I could not convince my anxious patients that although there was a real danger of driving, or for that matter, walking under exceptional weather conditions, the risk was much less than they imagined.

In time, I came to understand that the fear of bad weather was only one aspect of a more general fear, the fear of being away from home.

Anxious men and women may have specific fears, but they tend to grow out of certain very primitive fears learned during childhood:

The fear of being away from home and the fear of strangers. When these fears are prominent, the individual often grows up to be agoraphobic. Specific fears, such as the fear of driving an automobile in bad weather, may be the most obvious manifestation. The fear of strangers makes the fear of being alone away from home, perhaps trapped somewhere with a flat tire, more severe.

The fear of physical illness—resulting in adulthood in hypochondriasis.

The fear of losing control—resulting in panic disorder.

Fears about dirt and germs—resulting in obsessive-compulsive disorder.

Shyness and fear of embarrassment—resulting in social  phobia.

Often these fears overlap. The resultant anxiety disorder may include some or all of the above. Such a patient is said to be suffering from a generalized anxiety disorder. The worry about bad weather often accompanies a fear of children staying out late or a fear of airplane travel and so on. It is hard to reassure someone who is afraid of bad weather when what they are really afraid of is the outside world.  (c) Fredric Neuman Follow Dr. Neuman at Fredricneumanmd.com/blog.

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