Astraphobia: All You Need to Know About the Fear of Thunder and Lightning

Fact checked by Olga Sadouskaya, MD
Clinical Pharmacologist, Chief Medical Officer

The fear of thunder and lightning affects both people and animals. You’ve probably seen a dog panic at the first signs of a storm. You may have hidden under the bed during a thunderstorm when you were a child, too. In fact, you might still hide and cancel all plans when a weatherperson on TV says there could be a thunderstorm.

This extreme fear of storms is usually called astraphobia. Let’s find out what causes it and how to treat it successfully.

Astraphobia, tonitrophobia, brontophobia — is there any difference?

The fear of thunder and lightning has several names:

  • Astraphobia
  • Astrapophobia
  • Tonitrophobia
  • Brontophobia
  • Keraunophobia

But what’s the literal meaning of these words? Let’s find out.

The terms astraphobia and astrapophobia come from the Ancient Greek words astrape (lightning) and phobos (fear).

Tonitrophobia comes from the Latin word tonitrus, which means “thunder”.

Brontophobia is related to the Greek word for thunder, bronte. Doesn’t this word remind you of brontosaurus, a huge long-necked dinosaur? Well, you’re not far off — brontosaurus literally means “thunder lizard”.

What about keraunophobia? Keraunos is the Greek word for “thunderbolt”.

When taken literally, astraphobia (or astrapophobia) is a fear of lightning, whereas the other terms can be translated as a fear of thunder. However, since thunder and lightning usually go hand in hand, all of these terms can be used interchangeably.

Astraphobia causes and triggers

There are different reasons why someone can develop an intense fear of thunderstorms. Here are just some of them:

  • Having been hit by lightning (or knowing someone who got hit by lightning)
  • Living through a natural disaster like a flood or a hurricane
  • Having family members who experience astraphobia, other types of anxiety, or depression
  • Auditory processing disorder, a condition that can make affected people extremely sensitive to sounds (for example, raindrops can sound like bullets)
  • Autism spectrum disorder often goes hand in hand with anxiety and sensitivity to sounds

As you can see, astraphobia can have genetic causes (anxiety disorders can run in families), but it can also be caused by other health conditions or traumatic life events.

Lightning as a trigger for the fear of storms.

Some people also develop astraphobia for seemingly no reason because some causes of phobias are still unknown. This is why you can’t really prevent astraphobia from developing.

The main triggers for brontophobia attacks are the sound of thunder and the sight of lightning. However, someone who has this phobia can experience an anxiety attack even when they hear a weather forecast and learn that a thunderstorm is coming.

How many people experience pathological fear of thunderstorms?

Phobias aren’t rare. In fact, 19 million people in the United States alone have a mild to severe phobia that impacts their quality of life!

Astraphobia is one of the most common phobias, especially among children. However, many people never grow out of it, so their astraphobia persists until adulthood. Research suggests that weather-related phobias affect between 2 and 3% of people.

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So if you have astraphobia, you’re definitely not alone and there’s nothing to be ashamed of. While some people think that being afraid of storms is childish, astraphobia is a mental health condition, not a sign of weakness or immaturity.

How to diagnose astraphobia

It’s important to remember that not every fear of thunder and lightning “counts” as astraphobia. Lightning strikes, although rare, can be very dangerous, so most people would do their best to avoid them. Installing lightning rods on your house and avoiding tall trees when caught outside in a thunderstorm are normal precautions, not signs of astraphobia.

But when the fear of thunderstorms becomes overwhelming and starts affecting a person’s quality of life, it could be time for a diagnosis.

For example, a person with astraphobia could check the weather forecast obsessively and cancel all plans if a storm is coming. They could also avoid activities like camping because they’re worried about experiencing a thunderstorm outside the safety of their home.

Like other anxiety disorders, phobia of thunder is diagnosed by a mental health professional according to specific criteria described in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM–5) or the International Classification of Diseases (ICD-10). The DSM-5 is primarily used in the United States and the ICD-10, published by the World Health Organization, is used all around the world.

If you suspect you have astraphobia, your mental health professional will ask you questions to find out more about your symptoms, your family history, and any traumatic events that could have caused your phobia. Here are some of the symptoms they’ll be interested in:

  • Excessive worrying about experiencing a thunderstorm
  • Going to great lengths to avoid thunderstorms (for example, canceling plans if there’s a likelihood of storms)
  • Experiencing intense fear at the sound of thunder

For a valid diagnosis, these (and other symptoms) have to persist for at least six months.

Your mental health professional will also check whether your symptoms can’t be better explained by another health condition.

It’s true that you can find self-screening questionnaires online, but they won’t replace an appointment with a professional and an official diagnosis. You can use these questionnaires to estimate how serious your symptoms really are, but don’t rely on them too much.

Risk factors of astraphobia

The most frequent risk factor of astraphobia is simply being a child. Many children are scared of loud sounds, so thunder can be really terrifying. This natural fear can be made worse when parents or other caregivers overreact to storms in some way. Fortunately, most children outgrow their fear of thunderstorms.

Another risk factor is having health conditions that affect how the brain processes sounds.

For example, people with auditory processing disorder (APD) can find some sounds painfully loud. APD can co-exist with autism spectrum disorder (ASD) or attention deficit and hyperactivity disorder (ADHD).

Having family members who suffer from depression or anxiety can also increase your risk of developing astraphobia. Both anxiety and depression can run in families, and astraphobia is a subtype of anxiety.

A woman with the fear of thunder sitting under a blanket

Astraphobia treatment

Once you get diagnosed with astraphobia, your mental health professional will suggest one or several proven treatment options. Phobias are usually treated with talk therapy, and meds are only used if therapy alone doesn’t help.

Cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT)

This is a short-term, goal-oriented kind of talk therapy. It identifies the beliefs and thought patterns that make you feel anxious and then replaces them with more rational ones.

Exposure therapy

In exposure therapy, you’ll be exposed to storm-related triggers in a safe environment so that you’ll learn to face your fears. This kind of therapy can sound scary but your therapist will make sure that you feel safe throughout the treatment.

Acceptance and commitment therapy (ACT)

ACT helps people accept what they can’t control. Instead of running away from unpleasant emotions, you’ll learn how to face them and let them pass. ACT is effective in treating anxiety because it makes you more psychologically flexible.

Dialectical behavioral therapy (DBT)

DBT is similar to CBT, but it pays more attention to coping with distressing emotions and learning how to regulate them. It was originally developed for treating borderline personality disorder, but it’s also effective in treating anxiety.

Anti-anxiety medications

If talk therapy alone isn’t enough, your doctor may prescribe anti-anxiety medications that will reduce your stress levels. Although meds may help reduce anxiety symptoms, they are most effective in addition to talk therapy.

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Stress management techniques

Learning how to reduce stress levels with stress management techniques can help you overcome your phobias. Some of these techniques are:

Anxiety and phobias can be debilitating, but they can be treated relatively quickly (in fact, many people feel better after just a few therapy sessions). All you need to do is reach out for professional help.

Key takeaways

Astraphobia, also known as tonitrophobia, brontophobia or keraunophobia, is an intense fear of lightning and thunder. Like other phobias, it’s a type of anxiety disorder.

Astraphobia is common in children, but some people never grow out of it. Fortunately, there are effective and safe treatments for astraphobia. If you (or your loved one) have an overwhelming fear of storms, don’t hesitate to make an appointment with a licensed mental health professional.

November 16, 2022