Astraphobia, a type of specific phobia, is characterised by an intense fear of thunder and lightning. While astrophobia is most common in children, it can persist into adulthood and also affects animals. The term astraphobia is derived from the Greek words astrape for lightning and phobos for fear. Astraphobia is also known as brontophobia, tonitrophobia, keraunophobia, and ceraunophobia.
Generally, phobia falls under the category of anxiety disorders, a category of psychological conditions marked by persistent and uncontrollable fears that significantly impact one’s quality of life.
If you have astraphobia, you are probably aware that your reactions to thunder and lightning are irrational and disproportionate. Despite this awareness, you struggle to manage these automatic and overwhelming emotions.
Causes of astraphobia
The exact cause of astraphobia is still unknown. Various factors, such as genetic predisposition (when a parent or sibling has the condition), prior traumatic experiences (like a traumatic childhood event during a storm), and other cultural and environmental influences, may collectively contribute. Sometimes, astraphobia may develop in people without an apparent or identifiable cause.
Research shows that the following factors are relevant in understanding the development of phobias:
- Gender: The prevalence of specific phobia is higher in people assigned female at birth (AFAB) than people assigned male at birth (AMAB)1
- Age: Astraphobia typically begins during childhood. A thorough international survey conducted across 22 countries revealed an average age of phobia onset at eight years old. It is noteworthy that many people who encounter astraphobia during childhood often tend to outgrow it over time1
- Other mental disorders: Specific phobia often coexists with other mental conditions such as mood disorders (depression or bipolar disorder), anxiety disorders, impulse control disorders, and substance abuse disorders1
- Family history: Some individuals may have a genetic predisposition to developing phobias.2 Additionally, an exaggerated fear response to specific stimuli can be acquired through learning, often from close family members3
- Experiences: Astraphobia is more likely to develop after a frightening or dangerous experience encountered during a thunderstorm or severe weather. An irrational fear response may also be acquired through exposure to various sources, such as news reports or horror stories4,5
Signs and symptoms of astraphobia
Signs and symptoms of astraphobia can be manifested in emotional, psychological, and physical forms. These symptoms can occur in anticipation of and during thunderstorms, and may include:
- Feelings of dread and fear of dying
- Loss of control and panic attack
- Crying, screaming, and hysteria
- Difficulty swallowing, dry mouth, and choking sensation
- Strong desire to flee
- Dizziness, light-headedness, and fainting
- Increased heart rate
- Chest pain
- Rapid breathing and shortness of breath
- Sweating and trembling
- Nausea and diarrhoea
The anxiety seen in people with astraphobia surpasses the typical childhood fears of thunder and lightning. These childhood fears are a natural aspect of development and are typically outgrown over time.
Impact of astraphobia on daily life
Many people with astraphobia can live their lives normally without significant disruption, especially in areas where thunderstorms are infrequent and less intense. However, in more severe cases, particularly in areas that experience frequent thunderstorms and extreme weather, astraphobia can have a debilitating impact on people's quality of life. In which the thought of a thunderstorm can trigger significant anxiety symptoms.
People with astraphobia may obsessively monitor weather forecasts and track anticipated storms. During, or in anticipation of, a thunderstorm, they may seek substantial reassurance from those around them and may hide in a safe place. Outdoor activities can be avoided to prevent exposure to a thunderstorm. In severe cases, individuals may find themselves confined to their homes.
These behaviours can significantly impact academic, professional, and social activities, leading to potential consequences such as social isolation, reduced self-esteem, and challenges in relationships, employment, and academic pursuits. Research shows that people with specific phobias like astraphobia are more likely to have other co-existing mental health conditions, such as depression or generalised anxiety disorder.1
Diagnosis of astraphobia
People with phobias are usually aware that they have an uncontrollable and exaggerated response to specific stimuli. However, not everyone seeks medical assistance for their phobias. According to the NHS, the majority of phobias go undiagnosed professionally.
However, healthcare professionals can formally diagnose phobias by evaluating an individual’s emotional, behavioural, and physical responses to thunder and lightning, considering the intensity and duration of these responses. This may involve taking a patient history, completing questionnaires, and possibly utilising virtual reality (VR, a three-dimensional technological simulation of a real-life situation) as a diagnostic tool.6
Your healthcare provider may ask about the following:
- Anxiety persisting for six months or more
- Avoidance of thunder and lightning, even in media such as movies or pictures
- Intense fear or panic triggered by the sight of lightning or thunder
- Immediate fear or distress upon hearing about an approaching thunderstorm in the weather forecast
- Panic that disrupts your daily life, even when you know you are safe
Management and treatment of astraphobia
Many individuals experiencing astraphobia often manage their condition independently without seeking formal treatment.7 Coping strategies and self-help techniques are commonly employed in this context. In severe cases, healthcare professionals may become part of the phobia treatment process.
Management approaches may include the implementation of relaxation exercises, counselling or talk therapies, exposure therapy, and, in certain cases, medication. The primary goals of treatment are to reduce anxiety and desensitise the individual to the source of their fear.
These techniques, including breathing exercises, mindfulness, and meditation, can help reduce symptoms of anxiety. These techniques can calm the fear response and prevent feeling overwhelmed or out of control.
It is a psychotherapy commonly used in the management of phobias. CBT helps reframe irrational or distorted thought patterns, break cycles of negative thought associations, and change behaviours. While CBT is classified as a type of talk therapy, it might incorporate additional components.
It is a type of CBT which aims to desensitise individuals to their fears by intentionally exposing them to the feared object or situation. Guided by a therapist, this treatment helps in reframing negative thought patterns associated with fear. The exposure is typically gradual, starting from a less anxiety-inducing scenario and progressing to the most feared, with the aim of reprogramming thought processes to alleviate disproportionate fear responses.
In recent years, VR has proven effective in exposure therapy, simulating situations such as thunderstorms. This approach addresses practical limitations associated with real-life exposure in a therapeutic setting.6
Typically, medication is not prescribed for specific phobias such as astraphobia. However, if anxiety symptoms are severe and interfere with daily functioning, your doctor might suggest the use of anti-anxiety medications, tranquilisers (sedatives), or antidepressants.
Other treatment options
It includes inducing a hypnotic state, making individuals more receptive to altering their perceptions and thought patterns linked to their phobia.8
It helps in reprocessing previous traumatic experiences that may have led to the development of the phobia in order to change future responses to the same stimuli.9
How common is astraphobia?
Around 10 million individuals in the UK are believed to experience specific phobias associated with particular things or situations. Obtaining accurate figures for phobias poses a challenge due to many individuals not seeking treatment for the condition; thus, the specific prevalence of astraphobia is currently unidentified.
When should you seek medical attention if you have astraphobia?
It is advisable to consult a healthcare professional if astraphobia is significantly affecting your quality of life, causing distressing symptoms or fear-driven avoidance behaviour. Your doctor can guide you to appropriate resources and interventions.
- Astraphobia is an extreme fear of thunder and lightning, resulting in an exaggerated response
- Symptoms can be physical, emotional and psychological, including rapid heart rate, trembling, panic, and severe anxiety
- People with specific phobias like astraphobia may also experience other mental disorders such as depression and anxiety disorders
- Fortunately, astraphobia can often be effectively managed, either with the assistance of healthcare professionals or through self-help strategies
- Common treatments include Cognitive-Behavioral Therapy (CBT) incorporating exposure therapy and relaxation techniques
- Wardenaar KJ, Lim CCW, Al-Hamzawi AO, Alonso J, Andrade LH, Benjet C, et al. The cross-national epidemiology of specific phobia in the World Mental Health Surveys. Psychol Med [Internet]. 2017 Jul [cited 2023 Aug 22];47(10):1744–60. Available from: https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC5674525/
- Villafuerte S, Burmeister M. Untangling genetic networks of panic, phobia, fear and anxiety. Genome Biol [Internet]. 2003 [cited 2023 Aug 23];4(8):224. Available from: https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC193636/
- Askew C, Field AP. The vicarious learning pathway to fear 40 years on. Clinical Psychology Review [Internet]. 2008 Oct 1 [cited 2023 Aug 23];28(7):1249–65. Available from: https://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/abs/pii/S0272735808000901?via%3Dihub
- Garcia R. Neurobiology of fear and specific phobias. Learn Mem [Internet]. 2017 Sep [cited 2023 Aug 23];24(9):462–71. Available from: https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC5580526/
- Singh J, Singh J. Treatment options for the specific phobias. Int J Basic Clin Pharmacol [Internet]. 2016 [cited 2023 Aug 28];593–8. Available from: http://www.ijbcp.com/index.php/ijbcp/article/view/305
- Munir A, Saleem DY. Diagnosis of phobic anxiety disorders using virtual reality environment [Internet]. 2022 Feb [cited 2023 Aug 22]. Available from: https://www.techrxiv.org/articles/preprint/Diagnosis_of_Phobic_Anxiety_Disorders_using_Virtual_Reality_Environment/19153769/1
- Eaton WW, Bienvenu OJ, Miloyan B. Specific phobias. Lancet Psychiatry [Internet]. 2018 Aug [cited 2023 Nov 13];5(8):678–86. Available from: https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC7233312/
- Golden WL. Cognitive hypnotherapy for anxiety disorders. American Journal of Clinical Hypnosis [Internet]. 2012 Apr [cited 2023 Aug 27];54(4):263–74. Available from: http://www.tandfonline.com/doi/abs/10.1080/00029157.2011.650333
- Shapiro F, Solomon R. Eye movement desensitization and reprocessing therapy. In: APA handbook of trauma psychology: Trauma practice, Vol 2 [Internet]. Washington, DC, US: American Psychological Association; 2017 [cited 2023 Aug 23]. p. 193–212. (APA handbooks in psychology®). Available from: https://psycnet.apa.org/record/2017-14409-009