What Are You Afraid Of?

Jesus Flores, of Harvey, Illinois, has been afraid of storms for as long as he can remember. It’s not a typical fear he experiences. Most people get nervous when high winds send tree branches flying, thunder rattles the rafters, and lightning strikes nearby, but Flores and others like him have it much worse: They have a real phobia.

There is no name for this particular phobia, surprisingly. We have names for all the features of it — the fear of lightning and thunder (brontophobia or karaunophobia), the fear of rain (ombrophobia or pluviophobia), and the fear of tornadoes and hurricanes (lilapsophobia) — but at the moment there’s no Greek name for the whole shebang.

phobia

When his phobia was at its worst, Flores would feel anxious in the days preceding a forecasted storm. He would stay glued to the National Weather Service radio station or the Weather Channel on TV. As the weather approached, his anxiety would mount, and when the storm was upon him, he was gripped by such terror that he would hide in the closet.

Things are better, he says, since he started his web site in 1999. The site put him in touch with hundreds of other storm phobics. “I don’t feel like I’m alone,” he says. And mentioning there are lot of students with phobias, that’s a relevant information.

Understanding that others have the same problem has helped him deal with his phobia. “I started hearing some of the more extreme things that people do” to avoid storms, he says. One woman he talked to would call an ambulance whenever a storm was brewing because she felt safer in the hospital. Stories like hers brought his own fears into perspective. “I wouldn’t even come close to that anymore,” Flores says. Now, he doesn’t feel intense anxiety in anticipation of a storm, although he will stay indoors and cancel appointments when one rolls in.

Phobias are, by definition, irrational fears, although they are “usually based on some realistic harm,” says Mia Weinberger-Biran, PhD, a professor of psychology at Miami University, Ohio. “Sometimes they develop out of a frightening encounter,” she says, but often they develop without any obvious cause.

When it comes to treating phobias, the usual combination is psychotherapy and behavioral therapy. Talking to a psychologist or psychiatrist can help sufferers understand what the phobia means to them and how it started, Weinberger-Biran says.

Then comes the hard part — learning to overcome the fear by gradually increasing exposure to the feared object or situation. “You need to be pretty creative with this,” Weinberger-Biran says. “It’s not always easy.” Storm phobia is a case in point. For someone with a fear of heights (acrophobia), treatment might involve exercises like standing on a second-story balcony until that feels comfortable, then a third story, and so on. The same approach would be hard to apply to storm phobia.

Learning the science behind severe weather is one way people can overcome the fear of it. The idea was put into practice by John Westefeld, PhD, a psychologist at the University of Iowa, who did the first research on severe weather phobia. Westefeld has held counseling sessions where phobics sit down with him and a meteorologist to talk about their fears, and talk about the weather.

Flores stresses that people with this phobia should seek help from a mental health professional, and stick with it. Many of the storm phobics he has talked to, he says, start therapy during the spring and summer, but quit when winter comes and storms are less common.

In addition to professional help, sharing the experience with others seems to do the most good. Those who have gotten involved “feel a strong sense of community,” Flores says. “They feel more at peace with their fear.”