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Overcoming Fear of Natural Phenomena

Including Wind, Thunder & Lightning

Phobias are very common - experts believe that one person in ten is affected by a phobia at some time in their life - and fear of natural phenomena like darkness, wind, storms, and especially thunder and lightning, are very common from the adolescent years onwards.

Because there is an obvious common link between these phobias, we have dealt with them together, with some comments on the specific conditions separately.

WHAT EXACTLY IS A PHOBIA?

Phobias are fears. Fear is a normal part of life, and there are many things in life which can be dangerous or painful - including gale-force winds, or being struck by lightning.

Most people experience a certain level of ‘sensible’ anxiety in really extreme weather conditions, or when they have to visit a dangerous area in darkness. ’Sensible’ anxiety like this just reminds us to take precautions in situations that are genuinely dangerous, and most people would do so.

It is natural to feel anxious when such situations arise, and in this sense, anxiety is very useful. It warns you when danger is threatening. Fear (which we can think of as severe anxiety) can also be useful. When we find ourselves in a situation of real danger - such as being faced by a robber in a dark alley - the fear reaction is just what we need.

It releases adrenaline and other chemicals into our blood, and these speed up our heart-beat, sharpen our senses and heighten our physical powers. These changes prepare us for what is called ‘flight or fight’ - either to fight for our lives, or to run for them.

A phobia is a disorder in which the body reacts in exactly the same way, and we experience exactly the same feelings of fear - but in situations where ‘flight or fight’ is quite inappropriate. For example, thunder makes a loud noise, but it is in itself completely harmless. Even the risk from lightning and ‘hurricanes’, which are potentially dangerous, is extremely small. Nevertheless, in a phobia, it is as if our body and mind has lost all sense of proportion, and sets up an uncontrollable internal scream of ‘Danger! Danger! Hide! Hide!’ whenever the feared situation looms.

When the fear reaction is as strong as this, even a forecast of ‘unsettled weather’ or the thought of dusk approaching can feel like a serious and imminent threat to life and limb. People with phobias usually realise all too well that their reaction is irrational, but this makes no difference to its effect. Of course, ‘normal’ people find this very difficult to understand.

But phobias aren't just severe anxiety: the anxiety is turned into a phobia by avoidance.

In the early stages of a phobia, people affected sometimes try to tackle their fears head on by forcing themselves to go into the feared situation. If they succeed in staying there, the phobia can be overcome quite quickly. Unfortunately, these brief ventures usually end in a hasty retreat when the anxiety starts to rise. Because this avoidance brings a reduction of the tension, it rapidly becomes a habit. The next attempt then becomes more difficult, and so on until the attempts to face the problem stop altogether. Avoiding the situations where we feel frightened makes us more sensitive to those situations, and ‘conditions’ us to fear them even more.

Avoidance is like retreating from an enemy. We may feel safer to begin with, but we're letting the enemy get us on the run. This is why phobias can be such a big problem. Because we tend to avoid the things we fear, the fear can worsen very rapidly. And we have to retreat further and further, until we find that our ability to live a normal life has been drastically reduced. In the case of unavoidable phenomena like rough weather, we can soon be left with nowhere at all to hide. To recover, we need to put that process into reverse.

WHAT ARE THE SYMPTOMS OF PHOBIA?

The phobias dealt with in this leaflet can produce all the unpleasant physical symptoms of ‘normal’ fear:

  • heart palpitations
  • feeling sick
  • chest pains
  • difficulty breathing
  • dizziness
  • ‘jelly legs’
  • feeling ‘unreal’
  • intense sweating
  • feeling faint
  • dry throat
  • restricted or ‘fuzzy’ vision or hearing.

In severe cases, people may feel certain that they are about to die, go mad, or lose control of themselves and injure someone, or do something disgusting and humiliating. Most of all they feel an overpowering urge to ‘escape’ from the situation they are in. They also develop an acute fear of repeating these very unpleasant experiences, and this is what really creates the phobia.

The level of symptoms experienced by people with phobias about natural phenomena varies a great deal, from gnawing anxiety to very severe panic and terror.

Of course, these are only feelings. Even the worst panic attacks do not cause any long-term ill-effects; people who panic simply do not die, go mad, or cause mayhem as a result. In fact these frightening symptoms are exactly the same thing that ‘normal’ people feel in situations that really are dangerous. Soldiers in a battle feel exactly that way. The only thing different about a phobia, is that the fear is wildly out of proportion to the ‘danger’.

WHAT CAUSES THESE PHOBIAS?

It's hard to be precise, though sometimes an unpleasant experience may be the trigger.

‘Old wives’ tales' may also play a role, especially in the case of wind and storms. Parents or grandparents who become alarmed at the approach of thunder, and unplug the TV and put the cutlery away, are bound to influence young minds.

Apart from these examples, while it may be interesting to know the ‘cause’ of a phobia, it isn't vital. The phobia is just one possible form that underlying anxiety can take. The reasons why it has become focused on lightning, or wind may be quite accidental. A run of unpleasant ‘life events’ such as illness, death of a close relative, marriage break-up, losing a job or bad depression may be the real culprit.

It is not generally worth spending a lot of time and energy on ‘rooting out the cause’. The point is to learn to control the phobia.

HOW CAN I OVERCOME MY PHOBIA?

People with phobias have become ‘conditioned’ to produce the fear reaction in situations which aren't really dangerous at all. The best way to counter this is by ‘de-conditioning’: training themselves to react correctly.

This is done by gradually exposing themselves to the things they fear, and experiencing the fears without running away, and so becoming less sensitive to them.

The idea is simple, but it calls for a fair amount of courage and determination. The help of family and friends can make self-treatment much easier to manage, and this is also why many people prefer to join a self-help group where they can get support from people in a similar situation.

Anyone who decides to try desensitisation needs to draw up a personal ‘training programme’. This means working out what they can do now, deciding what they want to be able to do at the end, and fitting as many gradual ‘exposure’ steps in between as they need. The first step can be as simple as staying in a situation that can just be managed now, but for a little longer than before.

Obviously phobias can vary a great deal. However, here are some suggestions for how desensitisation could be handled.

Fear of wind, thunder and lightning

The levels of anxiety in individuals are so different that it is not possible to offer a single series of exposure steps for all cases. Some wind and storm phobics just experience a good deal of anxiety when high winds threaten, while others spend most of the day listening to weather forecasts, phoning the meteorological offices, or organising companions to look after them when bad weather threatens. However, these suggestions would be worth considering for someone with a serious wind phobia:

  • Cut down on the number of calls to Met. Offices; or on reading or listening to weather forecasts

  • Listen to sound effects records of wind and storms, including thunder

  • Watch videos of storms

  • If you hide, try to reduce the amount of protection you use, for example using a smaller blanket, or leaving the cupboard door open a crack

  • If you seek companions, try to have them simply available at the end of an open phone line, rather than actually in the house. (If you fear ‘wires’ and ‘electricity’ this may be difficult, in which case it should not be an early step.)

  • Work up to not hiding, but with a companion present

  • Then to not hiding, with no companion there

  • Then to observing high winds or lightning etc. with a companion

  • Then to doing so alone.

You can of course join this list at any point, or make up your own list with smaller steps.

SOME HINTS FOR SELF-EXPOSURE WORK

  • The first step can be very simple - perhaps staying in a situation that can just be managed now, but for a little longer than before.

  • The steps can be as large or as small as necessary, and big steps can be broken down into smaller ones. However, it is important to make sure that each step challenges the anxiety a little more than the last.

  • Don't be overwhelmed by the size of the task. As a rule, the steps become steadily easier as you work through them.

  • Don't expect to be completely free from anxiety before you leave each step and go onto the next - it will go completely in its own time as you progress.

  • If it is possible to find someone to work with, who can talk to you calmly and positively while you are doing the steps (not over-sympathising or endlessly asking how bad you are feeling) this can help.

  • When the work becomes hard, remind yourself that running away from the phobic situation keeps you phobic, while holding on through the anxiety that it brings helps to break the phobia down.

  • Relaxation techniques can be helpful in tackling the next step, and it is easy to practice relaxation in the privacy of your own home.

  • If the steps you have chosen prove impossible, or if you are depressed or have other severe anxiety problems, then professional help from a clinical psychologist or psychiatrist may be needed. You can reach such professionals through your GP; and in any case we recommend that you contact your GP and talk to him or her about your disorder.

 PANIC ATTACKS

Typically, people who are having a panic attack feel that they are about to have a heart attack, or go mad, or lose control of their bowels, or run amok and injure themselves and others. The urge to prevent this happening produces a powerful desire to escape from the situation immediately.

In reality, the imagined horrors do not occur. People simply do not have heart attacks, strokes, or brain haemorrhages, or go mad as a result of a panic attack. Nor do they collapse or have ‘fits’. The worst that can happen is that they feel faint or dizzy and have to sit down.

The boring truth about panic is that although it feels dreadful at the time, and although the overdose of adrenaline and other chemicals can leave a person feeling drained and shaken:

Bear in mind that if you panic:

  • panic does not cause any permanent harm

  • it does not drive people insane

  • panic attacks only last a short time, and then they subside, whether you stay in the dreaded situation or not.

 


The basic reference work on which we have drawn is Fears, Phobias and Rituals by Professor I M Marks, published by Oxford University Press (1987)

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