What It's Like to Have an Irrational Fear of Thunderstorms

"If the news said thunderstorms were in the forecast, I'd be too scared to go to school."

by Emmy Ruijven; as told to Lisanne van Sadelhoff; translated by Mari Meyer
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Jul 17 2018, 4:02pm

Felix Mittermeier/Unsplash

A version of this article originally appeared on Tonic Netherlands.

I hate thunder and lightning. It makes me shiver and it feels like the world is ending. I've been in bed countless times, crying like a kid, after it started thundering outside.

I can't explain how or why I get this scared. My parents aren't scared of it, and I'm not a fearful person; I'm not afraid of anything else. Still, I've been scared of thunderstorms since I was a little kid. It's not just the sound—I'm not afraid of fireworks, for example. Fireworks are man-made and we can control them. I'm also not phased by videos of intense lightning; they're not lethal, and they're obviously in the past because they've been filmed. But when thunder and lightning are happening in real-time right above my head, we're completely dependent on nature. In that moment, I feel a deep need to be protected, an overwhelming sense that something really terrible could happen; that we could get hit [by the lightning]. And in that moment, I die a little.

"If the news said thunderstorms were [in the forecast], I'd be too scared to go to school."

I remember camping with my parents when I was a little girl. The landscape was hilly and whenever thunder clapped—which happened frequently—the sound would linger. When you're in a tent, it's very impressive. I would get incredibly scared and panicked. During such an episode, my whole body tenses, my breath catches in my chest, and a deep sense of unease reverberates through my entire body as I cover my ears. The only thing that helped at that campsite, and which still helps me at home today, was to get into bed and completely cover myself with blankets. Not a single limb was allowed to protrude. I'd be hot and stifled of course, but I wouldn't think about that in the moment.


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My parents tried to calm me down, but I didn't settle until the storm was over. My mom was understanding, but my father didn't get why it was so scary. People who have astraphobia—about two to three percent of the US population, according to some estimates—often encounter that lack of understanding. But fortunately I was never bullied because of it, and people never joked about me during sleepovers. Maybe because everyone knew how scared I truly was.

The fear was horrible throughout my entire childhood. If the news said thunderstorms were [in the forecast], I'd be too scared to go to school. Curiously enough, the phobia lessened once I hit puberty. But one day when I was babysitting a few kids, lightning hit the diverter on their house and my fear came back in full force. I saw this huge ball of fire—very surreal and super quick—hurling by, and we heard this loud crackling sound. I started crying and shrieking like a baby. I was an absolute mess.

"It's really weird to be surrounded by people who are totally calm when you're not. It doesn't matter if you're told 20 times over to 'just chill' and 'nothing's going to happen'."

From that point on, I started obsessively checking the weather online to see if I could sleep in peace that night without being afraid. I exhibited control behavior and was also being avoidant: I wouldn’t leave the house without checking the weather report and would consider canceling work or missing classes if thunderstorms were expected. Whatever happened, I didn’t want to be on the move or in an unfamiliar place once the thunder and lightning began, especially because the feelings of fear and panic were so unbearable. It's really weird to be surrounded by people who are totally calm when you're not. It doesn't matter if you're told 20 times over to "just chill" and "nothing's going to happen."

I'm 27 now, and I've finally been able to overcome my fear to a certain extent. It's a lot less intense these days. It was difficult, but I was able to do without the help of a psychologist. You often hear that people need therapy, EDMR, or something like that, but oddly enough I kind of outgrew it. I didn't have any additional traumatic experiences with thunder and lightning, and—this is the most important part—I got better at putting things into perspective.

Now I tell myself I'm inside and I'm safe. I don't lie in bed screaming anymore. But I still prefer to have a blanket over me when it starts thundering outside, and I prefer not to have any electrical appliances around me. I still get that lump in my throat and knot in my stomach. If I'm at home and I see lightning in the distance, there's a good chance I'll call my employer and tell them I'll be in once the storm is over. If I hear it outside at night, I cozy up to my husband.

Over the years, I’ve noticed that talking while a thunderstorm is happening calms me down. Preferably it's with someone I know well. I can handle it if I have, quite literally, a lightning diverter right there with me.

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