Thunderstorms are unpredictable. They can sometimes intensify fast and produce damaging winds, cloud to ground lightning that comes crashing downward, tornadoes, or perhaps flooding. I know when I was a kid, I was terrified by loud thunder and lightning at night, but today I enjoy it. It’s the unknown that scares people … and pets. If you fear lightning and thunder, as many children, indoor pets and some adults do, then you (and they) have astraphobia.
What are the symptoms? About.com says:
Astraphobia can cause some symptoms that are similar to those of other phobias, as well as some that are unique. Sweating, shaking and crying may occur during a thunderstorm or even just before one begins. You may seek constant reassurance during the storm. Symptoms are often heightened when you are alone.
Additionally, many people with astraphobia seek shelter beyond normal protection from the storm. For example, you may hide under the covers or even under the bed. You may go to the basement, an inside room (such as a bathroom) or even a closet. You may close the curtains and attempt to block out the sounds of the storm.
Another fairly common symptom is obsession with weather forecasts. You may find yourself glued to the Weather Channel during the rainy season or tracking storms online. You may develop an inability to go about activities outside your home without first checking the weather reports. In extreme cases, astraphobia can eventually lead to agoraphobia, or fear of leaving your home.
According to the Iowa Veterinary Medical Association, thunder and lightning are some of the most common phobias experienced with dogs.
Behaviorists are not yet sure what part of the storm frightens dogs most, whether they’re reacting to lightning flashes, the sound of thunder, wind blowing around the house, or the sound of rain on the roof. Some dogs even start to pace and whine half an hour or more before a storm. They may be reacting to a sudden drop in air pressure or the electrical charge of the air.
What is there to be scared of? Most storms are harmless, even soothing to some, and nurturing to plants and wildlife. Thunder can’t hurt us, of course, but lightning strikes can be deadly. Lightning deaths average about 50-55 per year in the U.S., based on a 30-year average calculated by NOAA. But lightning is not the deadliest weather phenomenon. An average of about 109 in the U.S. die every year as the result of high winds in a tornado, according to Accuweather. Approximately 200 in the U.S. die annually due to flash flooding (Accuweather). Meanwhile, the deadliest weather phenomenon is heat waves. A recent study suggested that an average of 400 deaths occur annually due heat in the U.S., with the highest death rates occurring in persons aged 65 years or more.
Still, lightning strikes are deadly, which is why you should go indoors when you hear thunder. The majority of lightning fatalities typically occur in the spring and summer time when there is ample unstable air to create strong updrafts and potent thunderstorms containing dangerous cloud to ground lightning.
What’s the treatment for astraphobia? If it’s your child or pet that is afraid, soothe and snuggle them. Being held tightly seems to help some people. In a similar way, some people swear by thundercoats for dogs, and be aware that you don’t have to buy an expensive one. And old tightly wrapped tee-shirt for your pet might work just as well. If your child’s fear is severe, or lasts longer than six months, you might want to seek professional treatment so that a childhood fear of storms doesn’t become a full-blown phobia in adulthood.
Bottom line: What scares you the most when it comes to the weather? Do your pets hide under a bed during a thunderstorm? Let us know!
Matt Daniel is weekend Meteorologist for 13WMAZ (CBS) in Macon, Georgia, and founder of the blog Athens GA Weather. He's a self-described "big weather and music geek" and has produced weather content for CNN, MSN Weather and EarthSky. He has a passion for helping to keep people safe when severe weather strikes and says if you don't have a NOAA Weather Radio ... you should get one.