People often say the chances of you getting struck by lightning are about a billion to one. Despite the odds being stacked in your favour, some people find themselves getting a bit anxious about the risk of lightning. While most of that lightning phobia isn't severe enough to qualify as a disorder, for some it can be extremely debilitating for some people.
This article will discuss the symptoms of astraphobia, the difference between reasonable fear and phobia, and how astraphobia is treated.
According to the American Psychiatric Association’s Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, also known as the DSM, astraphobia would be listed under the disorder of ‘specific phobia’. This is characterized by a number of specific types of fear responses:
- Persistent and Excessive Fear Persistent fear means the fear of storms does not come and go or depend on specific variables but is present every time you are aware of a storm or the possibility of a storm heading towards you. Both the presence and the anticipation of storms can cause you distress.
- Immediate Anxiety Response You are likely to exhibit symptoms of high anxiety and even panic immediately following exposure to or the perceived threat of a storm. Your panic response may include rapid heart rate, shortness of breath, sweating, shaking, nausea, and crying. If you panic every time, your phobia is considered to be “situationally bound.” If you panic often but not every time, your phobia is “situationally predisposed.”
- Recognition That Fear Is Excessive Adults generally realize that the chances of being hit by lightning are incredibly slim, particularly if you are old enough to know how to protect yourself from lighting or that you are protected by the lightning rods present on most buildings, for example. However, this knowledge alone will not keep a phobic person from experiencing intense anxiety when exposed to storms.
- Obsessive Avoidance of Storms This may seem impossible, but people who are astraphobic often find ways of “avoiding” storms in whatever ways they can. These avoidance strategies may interfere with the person’s ability to function normally. For example, some obsess over weather forecasts, and others develop agoraphobic behaviors and refuse to leave “safe” spaces, such as their residence, to avoid going outside and being “vulnerable” to storms.
Other symptoms may include trying to block out the sound of thunder, hiding in “safer” spaces such as underneath a blanket or inside a closet, and seeking company and reassurance of personal safety from others.
It should also be noted that to be considered a specific phobia, the apparent fear of storms must not be a result of another disorder, such as agoraphobia or panic disorder. Additionally, in persons under 18 years of age, the fear reactions described above must occur persistently for over six months.
Natural Fear vs. Phobia
In children it can be difficult to discern between a phobic response and a natural fear, as children often are not familiar with aspects of the world around them and may be disturbed by things most adults rationally know to be harmless and therefore do not fear.
Children experience many fears as they are growing up and learning what is dangerous and what is not. Children’s’ fears can usually be eased temporarily by distractions during stormy weather, or by making the storm into a game (such as counting between lightning strikes to keep track of a storm’s movement away from your location).
However, if a child’s intense fear of storms involves all of the symptoms described in the previous section (except for the recognition that their fear is excessive, which may not be present), and lasts longer than six months, it may be considered a phobia and should be treated as such. If treated early on, astraphobia has less of a chance of developing into more severe disorders, such as agoraphobia, as time passes.
What about adults? Similar rules apply. Generally, when working out whether you have a phobia or whether this is normal fear, it can be helpful to consider the following questions: “does my fear seem excessive, compared to most other people that I know?”; and “is my fear interfering with my ability to live a normal life?”. If you answer yes to both of these questions and you meet the symptoms listed above, it’s likely that your fear is severe enough to be classified as a phobia.
How to Stop Storm Stress
Experiencing excessive stress due to storms can be embarrassing and awkward. However, there are ways that astraphobia can be controlled through exercises that you can do at home. To alleviate your fear of storms, you can:
- Create a Calming Mantra Many therapists who deal with clients with agoraphobia recommend coming up with a calming phrase to repeat to yourself during a storm to bring you back from panic to reality. Tips: think of a mantra that involves people or objects that make you feel happy and calm, and make it rhyme so that it’s easier to remember in an emergency. Here are some examples: “I am safe”, “I am at peace”, and “I’m going to be absolutely fine.”
- Controlled Breathing Exercises Practicing controlled breathing will help you to stay as in control of your body as possible when you are confronted with storms. Zen and yoga exercises can help you to practice this and teach your brain that your conscious mind is in control, rather than your instinctive fears.
- Identify and Replace Negative Thought Patterns Try to figure out what you usually think to yourself during storms. Writing during a storm or writing about how you feel about storms are good ways to do this. Once you know have identified any negative/problematic thinking styles that might be triggering your fear (E.g. “I’m going to die” or “I can’t cope cope with storms”), try to replace those negative cycles of thoughts with positive thoughts that can help you ride out your fear rather than escalate it. Examples of more helpful ways of thinking include “I’ve been in many storms and have always survived” and “I am able to cope with many things in life, storms included”.
- Be Calm Before (and During) the Storm The next time you experience a storm, take the time to very consciously and purposefully put your newly learned skills (your mantra, your controlled breathing, and your new thoughts patterns) into action. See if you can achieve total calm amidst the storm before it ends. This will help train your brain to stop responding to storms with excessive fear, and instead to feel calm and relaxed when storms happen.
If you practice positive thinking and relaxation techniques during storms frequently enough, your brain has more opportunities to learn that there is nothing to be afraid of, and you may find that your fear of storms has passed for good.
You can also try what's known as "systematic desensitization," which is a bit difficult with something like storms, but still an activity you can do yourself. It involves getting used to various components of storms until they don't cause you fear. For example:
- First you think about storms on purpose until you don't fear the thought.
- Then you look at photos of storms until you don't fear the photos.
- Then you watch videos of storms until you don't fear the videos.
- Then you play sounds from storms loudly for hours on end until you don't fear the sounds.
While doing all of these, practice the relaxation techniques we discussed above to calm yourself down if you feel like you’re getting too agitated. Normally you would follow this up with exposing yourself to storms, but that is not always possible. Still, these tricks can make it less likely that you will fear the storm as much, which will put you in a better position to control your anxiety. Make sure you never move on to the next step unless you've completed the previous one, and don't do this activity unless you can commit.