by Erin Silver
Living in Bermuda you likely know someone who is terrified of hurricanes – you might even be yourself.
Astraphobia, or the fear of thunder and lightning, is one of the most common phobias in the world. Lilapsophobia, a fear of tornadoes and hurricanes, is a more severe form of astraphobia.
“Humans are all born with an innate fear of loud noises,” said Charlotte Morgan, a clinical psychologist at Solstice, which offers a range of therapeutic, wellness and psychological support to Bermuda residents. “Astraphobia is more common in small children, but it typically subsides in adolescence. However, fears may persist and become enduring for some adults.”
She explains that a phobia is when the fear is disproportionate to the danger that is presented— extreme, exaggerated and irrational—and interferes with daily life.
It can be caused by a past traumatic event, be a conditioned response or be a learned behaviour. “Quite often, reactions to storms are at the opposite extremes,” said Dr Morgan. “Some love to watch them and find them dramatic and exciting, but to others they are terrifying and cause extreme anxiety.”
How do you know if you have a phobia?
- Intense fear during a storm;
- Distress and high anxiety when a storm is anticipated;
- Increased alertness and checking behaviours eg repeatedly checking a forecast and tracking storms;
- Avoidance behaviours beyond what may be reasonable during a storm (eg hiding in a closet or under the bed);
- Avoidance of going out or attending specific venues not deemed to be “safe” even on clear days;
- Intense separation anxiety (“clingy” behaviours);
- Panic attacks and physical signs of anxiety (eg breathlessness, heart palpitations, nausea,
- chest pain, abdominal pain, sweating or a feeling of being out of control).
If this sounds familiar, there are ways to manage and to help others cope, too. Dr Morgan says modelling calm behaviour is integral. “We can inherit our fears from others and many are learned. For example, if you see your parents react fearfully to a stimulus children often pick up on these cues, such as nervousness.”
If your family members are scared, she suggests making a fun plan or “rainy day routine” that includes lots of quality time and activities that distract from what’s going on outside. “Keep to a routine and make the day as normal as possible to show that the storm doesn’t need to change your lives drastically,” she says.
Dr Morgan offers a variety of other tips as well :
- Talk about storms in a way that is matter of fact. Explain how they work, share facts and notice things about storms. Share appropriate resources when a person feels safe and calm. Remind others that studying weather patterns is a job for many people and that you are kept well informed as a result.
- Limit exposure to repeated news stories, which sometimes report the scariest pieces of information. Tune in discretely where needed to avoid frightening others and just enough to make plans/remain sensibly informed.
- Talk about feelings and concerns. With children, it is easier for adults to anticipate their needs and open this line of communication. It is important to let others know it’s okay to talk and that sometimes you might feel a bit scared too, or perhaps you felt like this in the past.
- Have a safety plan and be prepared to briefly address the potential danger of a storm. However, explain how you are prepared and reassure them that you will be safe by following this.
Many of these tips apply to adults who are scared themselves. Dr Morgan tells patients to create a storm plan to help alleviate fears. This allows people to feel some sense of control over the controllable factors. She also advises not to “feed the fear”; limit how often you check news stories and weather updates.
It’s also helpful to find someone you trust with whom you can share your fears. Then, on the day of the storm, distract yourself with enjoyable activities and try to follow a daily routine as much as possible. For example, plan to exercise indoors instead of outside and remember to eat well.
Some people will try to hide in the closet during a storm, but Dr Morgan recommends reducing excessive avoidance behaviours.
“Some exposure is helpful,” she says. “Hiding serves to reinforce our fear or anxiety.”
She also tells patients to repeat calming phrases such as, “I am safe” and “This will pass”. “Often our focus of attention is on the perceived danger and this maintains our worry,” she explained.
Finally, perform deep, relaxing breathing exercises to reduce panic and anxiety.
If you want help dealing with storm fear in the long-term, it might be useful to seek professional support. “Talking treatments such as counselling, are often very effective at treating phobias. In particular, cognitive behavioural therapy and mindfulness have been found to be very effective, too,” Dr Morgan added.