Are you scared of lightning? Does thunder make you want to curl up in a ball and hide? Do you have a physical reaction when a storm begins, such as sweaty palms or chest pain? Astraphobia is the term for the extreme fear of thunder and lightning. And it’s not just children and adults who can suffer from an extreme and irrational fear of thunder and lightning. This common phobia can also affect animals, so don’t be surprised if your dog starts howling and hiding under the bed at the height of a nasty electrical storm. The term, astraphobia, is derived from the Greek word astrape which means lightning, and phobos which means fear. Astraphobia can negatively affect and limit the lifestyle of people dealing with the fear, but it is treatable–for both humans and pets.

What is Astraphobia?

A person who has astraphobia will frequently check the weather report, says Greta Hirsch, PhD, clinical director of The Ross Center, an outpatient mental health treatment center in Washington, DC. “If they hear that there is a storm coming, they will alter their plans and they may go to extreme degrees to change these plans. And when there is a storm, they may become so afraid they go into a closet in their home and hide,” explains Dr. Hirsch.

People with a phobia of thunder and lightning may avoid situations where a storm might be present, such as camping. Astraphobia may cause them to go irrationally out of their way to avoid bad weather, such as canceling plans at even a slight possibility of a storm. The good news, for those who suffer from astraphobia, is that the condition is treatable.

Causes of Astraphobia

Astraphobia can be attributed to evolution, instinct, and a natural physiologic response, says Alan Manavitz, MD, clinical psychiatrist at Lenox Hill Hospital in New York City. “It can be instinctual or learned or traumatic in origin,” he says. Evolutionarily, it makes sense to want to avoid a storm, since they can very realistically present danger. However, having an overwhelming physical reaction to a storm when you are knowingly safe in a home is a condition that can be overcome.

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When people have had a traumatic experience linked to thunderstorms and lightning, they may be more prone to develop astraphobia. And if a person has witnessed someone getting hurt by thunder and lightning, this can contribute to the development of astraphobia. Those who are generally inclined toward anxiety and fear also may be more prone to develop this phobia.

Additionally, children with autism and those with sensory processing issues tend to develop astraphobia more frequently than other people because they are more sensitive to sound, Dr. Hirsch says.

Astraphobia Symptoms

Individuals who have astraphobia may have feelings of panic before and during a storm. The phobia can cause such symptoms as:

  • Chest pain
  • Numbness
  • Nausea
  • Heart palpitations and a racing pulse
  • Breathing difficulty
  • Sweaty palms
  • An obsessive desire to monitor the storm
  • Clinging to others for protection during a storm
  • Understanding that these feelings are irrational and overblown

Individuals with astraphobia may also feel the need to hide away from lightning and thunder in a closet, bathroom, bathtub, or under the bed, Dr. Manavitz says. “They may cling to others for protection,” he says.

Treatments for Astraphobia

Cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) can be used to treat astraphobia. “Cognitive behavioral therapy is effective because it retrains our subconscious to rid itself of negative thoughts by retraining our conscious perceptions first,” Dr. Manavitz says.

In cognitive behavioral therapy, the therapist may encourage the person attending to keep an anxiety journal, Dr. Hirsch says. In the journal, the person may note when there is a storm coming and that they believe that if they don’t hide in their closet, something terrible (like lightning striking the house or a tree falling on the house) will happen. Next, the therapist and patient will look at their negative thoughts together. “The person begins to see that when he or she is having a panic attack and believing these negative thoughts, all it does is make them continue to be fearful,” Dr. Hirsch says. “So the anticipatory anxiety feeds the feelings of loss of control and creates a panicked feeling.”  In treatment, this negative way of thinking is gradually replaced with fact-driven, evidence-based thinking, which helps the person to manage their anxiety.

Exposure therapy is also helpful, Dr. Hirsch says. “With exposure therapy, the person may watch videos of storms or listen to the sound of thunder,” Dr. Hirsh says.

Breathing techniques and progressive muscle relaxation can also be useful in treating astraphobia.

What You Can Do

Don’t constantly look at weather apps. Checking the weather compulsively can make a person with astraphobia think they are keeping themselves safe, “but it really fuels the anxiety,” Dr. Hirsch says. Try limiting yourself to checking the weather in the morning so that you can dress accordingly, but resist hitting the weather app multiple times per day.

Get a referral to a mental health counselor who is trained in CBT. You may even want to have the therapist make a “house visit” during a storm so that you can practice your deep breathing and receive counseling during the actual storm.

Mental health apps and meditation apps are also an easy and accessible option for dealing with astraphobia. There are apps that provide therapy sessions (including CBT), apps that provide guided relaxation techniques, and apps that allow you to journal your fears.

Share with your loved ones that you have an irrational fear of thunder and lightning, and ask for their support. Talking out loud about your fears may help you begin to face them and informing your loved ones that your phobia is limiting you may help decrease additional anxiety you have about missing your loved ones’ events and gatherings.

Surprisingly, knowing the rarity of death by lightning strike won’t lessen the irrational fear. “During a storm, to calm yourself, count backward from 200 by 3s or 2s. Or talk on the phone,” advises Dr. Hirsh. “Doing either of these out loud regulates your breathing.” She also says to remind yourself of how many times you’ve been at home by yourself during a storm, and nothing bad has happened!!

It might feel like you’ll never get over this fear, especially if it’s something you’ve been dealing with since you were young, but opening up about your phobia and seeking treatment will help you get over your fear of thunder and lightning.

 

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Last Updated: Jul 24, 2018