Tonitrophobia, also known as astraphobia, is an irrational fear of thunder and lightning. It can cause intense anxiety & fear and seriously affect different aspects of a person’s life.
What Is Tonitrophobia?
Tonitrophobia is an unwanted and aberrant fear of thunder, lightning and thunderstorms. It is a type of specific phobia that can be observed in both humans and animals. It can lead to intense feelings of anxiety and may even lead to panic attacks. This disorder can affect individuals of all ages and is experienced more by children than adults. Most children tend to overcome it as they grow older. However, some may experience it in their adult lives as well. Moreover, this specific phobia can also affect adult individuals who haven’t experienced it in their childhood.
Tonitrophobia is derived from the Greek word “tonitro” which means thunder, and the word “phobos”, the god of fear in Greek mythology. It is also known as –
- Brontophobia 1
It is a treatable condition like most other specific phobias. However, the American Psychiatric Association (APA) does not officially recognize it as a psychiatric diagnosis.
What Tonitrophobia Feels Like?
Tonitrophobia is generally experienced more by people who live or work in regions with frequent and severe stormy weather. Preparing for thunderstorms or getting caught up in extreme weather conditions can make anyone feel reasonably anxious or afraid. However, people with this disorder tend to have an intense and excessive phobic reaction to lightning and thunder. Individuals suffering from this specific phobia feel overwhelmed, devastated and overpowered. Moreover, it can also affect their ability to function in daily life as well.
In order to manage their anxiety and fear, sufferers may often take some painstakingly severe measures to avoid not just extreme weather conditions, but also when it’s mildly cloudy. Even by anticipating bad weather, they may avoid going out and prefer to stay indoors. This may affect different aspects of their life like education, work, relationships and other commitments. Although such measures can provide temporary relief from their crippling anxiety, in the long run, it can make the condition worse.
However, as specific phobias, like tonitrophobia or astraphobia, have originated due to evolution, some experts consider that fear of thunder and lightning is not exactly a phobia but an evolutionary tool designed to ensure our survival. Irrespective of the controversy surrounding it’s cause, numerous people across the world are affected by this condition and experience intense fear and anxiety during bad weather. In fact, according to a 2017 study 2, astraphobia is the 3rd most prevalent specific phobia among Americans.
Tonitrophobia In Children
The fear of thunder is very common in childhood. Children with autism disorder are highly sensory-sensitive in nature and this may contribute to the development of tonitrophobia. Their phobia may lead to other signs of extreme anxiety including pacing, repetitive speech, yelling, crying, clinging, aggression and even self-injury. Parents may utilize the following effective strategies to reassure their child and make them calm during extreme weather conditions:
- Using noise-cancelling headphones to distract children from the sound of a thunderstorm and soothe them.
- Offering them their favourite toys or things to hold on to as children often find comfort and reassurance in toys when anxious.
- By engaging children in some games that parents can play along with them. This will help to distract them from the bad weather.
Tonitrophobia In Animals
It is commonly observed that generally dogs are scared of thunder 3 as an evolutionary and natural instinct. Moreover, as they lack the ability to understand the source and purpose of the sound, dogs become increasingly anxious about thunderstorms. According to behaviour research scientist Dr. Ragen T.S. McGowan, the fear of thunder largely depends on the dog’s personality and past experiences.
Here are a few ways to soothe dogs affected by tonitrophobia or astraphobia, according to research:
- Turning on the TV or playing calming music can distract the dog and drown the sound of thunders.
- Providing a safe place to the dog where they can hide and feel secure during thunderstorms.
- Playing with or petting the dog to make them feel reassured.
- By wrapping the dog with fitting shirts which are specially designed to calm anxious dogs.
Apart from dogs, many other animals can be afraid of thunder and lightning depending on the severity of the weather.
Symptoms Of Tonitrophobia
People with this specific phobia often experience several challenges while coping with their thoughts and emotions during thunderstorms. Not only do they experience severe anxiety and fear, but they can also experience a full-blown panic attack depending on the intensity of the condition and the individual. In extreme cases, hospitalization may also be required. A noticeable obsession with weather forecasts is perhaps the most common sign of tonitrophobia. Moreover, they may feel incapable of going outside and conducting normal regular activities without checking the weather reports first.
Here are some physical and psychological signs of this disorder:
1. Physical symptoms
Sufferers may experience overwhelming feelings of anxiety and panic attacks that can cause real physical symptoms, such as:
- Shortness of breath or difficulty breathing
- Headaches and dizziness
- Rise in blood pressure
- Clinging to others for protection
- Uncontrollable crying, particularly in children
2. Psychological symptoms
When exposed to thunderstorm, an individual suffering from Tonitrophobia may also experience these emotional and mental signs and symptoms:
- Fear of losing control
- Fear of fainting
- Anxiety and fear when thinking of or hearing thunder
- Anger, irritability, mood swings
- Fear of dying
- Panic attack
Causes Of Tonitrophobia
There is no specific reason for the development of tonitrophobia or astraphobia. However, genetics and environment 4 often play a crucial role in the development of most specific phobias like the fear of thunder. If a family member has experienced this phobia or has a history of mental disorders, like anxiety, depression, or phobias, then it is likely that another family member or an offspring may develop this phobia. When someone has a genetic predisposition to develop anxiety disorders like tonitrophobia, then a traumatic experience, like surviving a cyclone or a hurricane, may trigger the condition into a serious phobia. Moreover, if this traumatic event occurs during their childhood, then any storm, lightning, thunder or even a mildly cloudy sky can trigger intense emotions in their adulthood.
Apart from this, evolution is also a contributing factor in the development of this phobia, as mentioned earlier. Being afraid of loud noises ensured that our ancestors survived threats and dangers. So this particular phobia, like phonophobia 5 or fear of loud noises and others, may have served as a survival mechanism.
Diagnosis Of Tonitrophobia
Currently, there is no particular diagnosis or test for this specific phobia as it is not recognized by the APA. However, the fifth edition of the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM-5) offers certain criteria for specific phobias which can be referred to while diagnosing tonitrophobia or astraphobia.
Generally if the fear of thunder lasts longer than 6 months and is affecting the patient’s normal daily functioning and social life, then they need to seek help from a mental health professional, like a psychiatrist or a psychologist. The doctor may interview the patient and analyze the symptoms to understand how their thoughts, emotions, perceptions and behavior is influenced by their phobia. The doctor may also conduct few tests to ensure that the symptoms are not due to other medical conditions or mental disorders.
Treatment Of Tonitrophobia
There is no specific treatment that has been particularly developed to cure tonitrophobia. However, like any other phobia, a combination of psychotherapy and medication can help the patient to relieve symptoms and overcome the disorder. Here are some treatment options for this phobia which may prove effective for sufferers:
There are a number of different therapy techniques 6 available for the treatment of thunder and lightning phobias:
A. Cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT)
CBT 7 is one of the most well-known forms of talk therapy or psychotherapy. Due to its short-term, goal-oriented approach, CBT can be highly effective for phobia patients. Moreover, as the therapist directly interacts with the sufferer, it can help to replace their negative behaviour and thought patterns with more positive and logical thinking.
B. Exposure therapy
Although a form of CBT, exposure therapy 8 is a more effective and targeted approach in coping with phobias. It requires the therapist to gradually expose the patient to the feared object or situation in a controlled setting over a period of time. By getting exposed to their fears repeatedly and slowly, the patient becomes desensitized to the triggers and becomes better able to manage their own thoughts and emotions.
For tonitrophobia or astraphobia, the patient may be asked to listen to audio recordings of thunder under the observation of their therapist. As the process progresses and the patient gradually becomes desensitized, their therapist may increase the intensity and volume of the audio recordings to further desensitize them.
C. Acceptance and commitment therapy (ACT)
ACT is a psychological intervention that encourages patients to accept their own emotions and thoughts instead of avoiding or rejecting them or feeling guilty. By using acceptance along with certain mindfulness strategies, it helps to build psychological flexibility through commitment and behaviour-change. It is a clinically effective treatment method that helps patients accept the situation they are in and accept themselves.
D. Virtual reality treatment (VRT)
With the help of VRT 9, the patient can be immersed in a safe virtual environment to expose them to thunderstorms and extreme weather conditions. By repeatedly exposing them to their feared situation using virtual reality, the patient can be desensitized using a more immersive and realistic experience with a head-mounted display (HMD). This can lead to more effective outcomes. Moreover, it can also enable them to develop various helpful coping strategies.
Although there are no specific medications for the treatment of this disorder, a mental health professional may prescribe certain medications to relieve the symptoms of severe tonitrophobia. Anti-anxiety medication, like Xanax and Valium, may be prescribed to prevent and manage panic attacks. Moreover, antidepressants can also be prescribed to cope with depression and other anxiety symptoms.
It is always important for sufferers to seek professional help as it can enable them to understand how their disorder is actually affecting them and what they can do to manage it.
Living A Fear-Free Life
A combination of both medication and therapy can help in significantly improving the condition in the long run. Consulting a doctor can not only help you to overcome the symptoms, but also allow you to build a healthier life that is free from anxiety and fear. Moreover, it can also enable you to live with hope, strengthen your personal relationships and build your social life as well.References:
- Uyan, T. T., Bahceci, B., & Hocaoglu, C. (2018). Fear of Thunder ‘Brontophobia’: A Case Report. https://www.researchgate.net/publication/328274168_Fear_of_Thunder_’Brontophobi
- Coon, D., & Mitterer, J. O. (2008). Introduction to psychology: Gateways to mind and behavior. Cengage Learning.
- Nancy A. Dreschel, Douglas A. Granger,
Physiological and behavioral reactivity to stress in thunderstorm-phobic dogs and their caregivers,
Applied Animal Behaviour Science,
Volume 95, Issues 3–4,
- Loken, E. K., Hettema, J. M., Aggen, S. H., & Kendler, K. S. (2014). The structure of genetic and environmental risk factors for fears and phobias. Psychological medicine, 44(11), 2375–2384. https://doi.org/10.1017/S0033291713003012
- Asha’ari, Z. A., Mat Zain, N., & Razali, A. (2010). Phonophobia and hyperacusis: practical points from a case report. The Malaysian journal of medical sciences : MJMS, 17(1), 49–51.
- Lars-Göran Öst,
Behavioral treatment of thunder and lightning phobias,
Behaviour Research and Therapy,
Volume 16, Issue 3,
- Mansell, W. (2007). Coping with fears and phobias: A CBT guide to understanding and facing your anxieties. Simon & Schuster.
- Sars, D., & van Minnen, A. (2015). On the use of exposure therapy in the treatment of anxiety disorders: a survey among cognitive behavioural therapists in the Netherlands. BMC psychology, 3(1), 26. https://doi.org/10.1186/s40359-015-0083-2
- Wiederhold, B. K., & Wiederhold, M. D. (2005). Virtual reality therapy for anxiety disorders: Advances in evaluation and treatment. American Psychological Association. https://doi.org/10.1037/10858-000