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Astraphobia — When Lightning is Frightening

Daniel Sher, MA, Clin Psychology
Astraphobia — When Lightning is Frightening

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.

Striking Symptoms

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:

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:

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:

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.

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