The fear of thunder (brontophobia) is one of several specific phobias that can adversely affect people's lives. Fortunately, it responds very positively to treatment.
Brontophobia is an abnormal and persistent fear of thunder that causes high levels anxiety and often results in avoidance and safety behaviors.
Symptoms of Brontophobia
Symptoms most often occur during a thunderstorm but may also occur in anticipation of thunder. Physical symptoms may include sweating, increased pulse rate, trembling, rapid breathing or shortness of breath. Psychological symptoms may include a sense of terror or dread and feelings of helplessness. The fear of thunder may prevent the person from leaving the house. The person may also engage in a number of safety behaviors such as closing doors, windows and curtains, and hiding in a place of perceived safety (beneath the bed, under the stairs).
Brontophobia in Children
Very young children often express a fear of thunder but this is not necessarily phobic in nature. A phobia by definition is an intense, irrational and persistent fear. Loud and unexpected bangs or flashes of light are unsettling, especially when you have no knowledge as to the cause or consequences. The expression of fear in young children may therefore be a perfectly rational response, triggered as part of their innate fight or flight mechanism. Children learn from their parents or the people around them. If adults show fear the child may form this association. If the parent remains calm and explains what is happening and why, the child will start to relax and may even begin to enjoy storms by, for example, counting the seconds between the lightning flash and the rumble of thunder. Most children grow out of a fear of thunder quite naturally.
Causes of Brontophobia
Phobias typically develop as a form of associative learning and may generalize to other objects or situations over time. Fear of dogs, for example, can often be traced to an unpleasant moment when the person was either attacked or felt threatened by a dog. Similarly, a fear of lightning and/or thunder may have a direct or indirect association. The most direct association would be a scenario in which the person was caught in a thunderstorm. The fear of the experience has remained with them. Alternatively, the cause of brontophobia may have resulted as a more generalized fear deriving from say an explosion, some other loud noise, or the memory of some traumatic event during stormy weather. The message is that the cause of brontophobia may not always be directly linked with the person’s own specific fear of thunder so much as its association. It may also be just one of several phobias the person experiences.
Nearly all phobias can be treated successfully, yet many people with one or more phobias simply try to avoid the situation that causes them fear and go without any form of therapy. There are a variety of potential treatment options for any phobia these include:
- Cognitive behavioral therapy (frequently regarded as the treatment of choice).
- Medication (in isolation or combination with a talking therapy).
Most specific phobias, like brontophobia can be treated by a process of desensitization and gradual exposure. Unlike a fear of spiders or needles, where exposure can be guaranteed, direct exposure to thunder is clearly more problematic. Some therapists however have come up with novel techniques including video and/or audio exposure, combined with relaxation and sometimes biofeedback techniques.
Butler, G. (1989). Phobic Disorders. In K. Hawton, P.M. Salkovskis, J. Kirk and D.M. Clark (Eds), Cognitive Behaviour Therapy for Psychiatric Problems: A Practical Guide. Oxford: Oxford University Press.
Davey, G.C.L. (Ed.) (1997) Phobias: A handbook of theory, research and treatment. Chichester: Wiley.