Donna Walston wasn't always afraid of thunderstorms, but the tornado outbreak that struck southern Ontario in August 2009 changed that.
Now, when storms are forecast for her area, her throat tightens and she begins shaking. The Newmarket resident monitors radar maps on her computer until the storms get close. Then she heads to the basement.
“Every storm, I'm in the basement and I don't venture upstairs until I know all is clear,” she said.
Walston suffers from astraphobia -- a debilitating fear of thunderstorms -- and she's not alone.
Astraphobia is very common in children, but it can carry over into or develop in adulthood, with devastating results, said Dr. Katy Kamkar, a clinical psychologist at the Centre for Addiction and Mental Health in Toronto.
A certain amount of fear and caution around thunderstorms is normal, Kamkar said.
“Normal anxiety is when we perceive a threat or danger and our built-in alarm system, or 'fight or flight response,' becomes activated so that we protect ourselves -- and in regards to thunderstorms, there are important safety precautions to follow,” she explained.
It's when the anxiety is disproportionate to the risk or begins to interfere with other activities that it becomes a problem.
Symptoms of astraphobia can include sweating, shaking, crying, rapid heartbeat and a feeling of dread. Even the sound of distant thunder may trigger feelings of panic, Kamkar said.
“(The person) might want to hide themselves in the basement or the closet, or they might be hypervigilant -- looking at the skies all the time for signs of bad weather, constantly checking weather reports or following up with family and friends in regards to thunderstorms.”
The good news is, there are ways to overcome astraphobia, Kamkar said.
Psychologists use cognitive behaviour therapy to treat patients with severe phobias. In the case of astraphobia, that could involve learning about functional versus dysfunctional anxiety, techniques for managing anxious or obsessive thoughts and gradual exposure to the sound of thunder.
“If a person has a fear that causes significant distress and interferes with the person’s function, it would be very helpful to seek professional help,” Kamkar said.