How can I alleviate my fear of thunderstorms tonight?
March 15, 2012 9:45 AM   Subscribe

There is a line of thunderstorms heading our way, and my anxiety (nay, fear) is rising sharply. What should I do?

Yes. I'm a little ashamed to admit this. I'm a 22 year old woman, fairly confident but with an anxious personality, who is extremely afraid of thunderstorms. I wasn't exposed to severe thunderstorms until moving to North America a few years ago (I grew up in a desert where I may have seen one mild thunderstorm over a period of 10 years). My heartbeat was always a little intense when a thunderstorm is going on, but a year ago, I was caught outside in one while outdoor climbing. That one event blew my mild anxiety into full-blown astraphobia. All I remember during the event is trying to hide under an overhang, with bright red lightning blasting everywhere around me, and me practically puking up from fear that I might get hit. I couldn't move. Needless to say, it passed, and I was okay. I thought this might have helped me get 'stronger', get reassured that yes, I can survive a thunderstorm. Sadly, if anything, my fear has only gotten worse. I am okay when there is rumbling in the distance, but as soon as the storm approaches closer, and the thunderclaps are far louder (our house shook this morning!) I scamper into the basement and begin shaking and crying. I know I need to go see a psychiatrist that treats phobias like this eventually, but I can't go today, and there are already a line of severe thunderstorms approaching our area tonight. Watching todays news about local houses and people getting hit don't alleviate my fear one bit. So my question is: what can I do tonight to not shake/cry/feel like I'm dying until I can go see a professional? And, topped off with another stupid question: what *exactly* happens if a lightning strike hits your house? I know that the house/household objects end up catching on fire. But what is it like? Does it blow a hole in your roof? lol. Anyway, I will be in the basement tonight, crossing my fingers that nothing scary happens.
posted by raintree to Science & Nature (23 answers total)
Lighting strikes do not necessarily cause fires. Also, even if lighting strikes in your immediate vicinity (which is statistically unlikely), it could just as easily hit a tree.

If you're inside, you're pretty safe. I know it's scary. Ask a psychiatrist about it -- this is the sort of situation that they can usually provide you with some anti-anxiety medication to be taken as needed.

You'll be fine! There is lightning constantly striking the surface of the earth somewhere at all times, and human injuries/fatalities are extremely low. You're in far, FAR more danger just driving to work or to the store, but it's a quiet danger. Try to remind yourself that the scariest things aren't always the most dangerous.
posted by clockzero at 9:52 AM on March 15, 2012

Best answer: what *exactly* happens if a lightning strike hits your house?

I can't speak to the phobia aspect of this, but this has happened to me in a minor way. There is a very bright light [like a "see it through your eyelids" sort of bright] and a crack and the air smells funny. It can fry your appliances but not in a "they catch on fire" way but more "If they are not plugged into a surge protector they are toast" sort of way. I know a number of people whose houses have been hit by lightning and none of them dealt with a fire or a hole in the roof. Not saying it's not possible but I think it's unlikely. So you can practice lightning safety which may use up some extra energy. Unplug computers and TVs and other non-essential things. Check to make sure stuff that stays plugged in is plugged into surge protectors. If you're a nerdy reading type, you might like some of the publications from the National Lightning Safety Institute talking about your risks of getting hit by lightning [very low] and other things you can do to protect your house and your person especially when it's safe and when you should be more cautious.
posted by jessamyn at 9:54 AM on March 15, 2012 [4 favorites]

Using headphones to listen to some guided meditation might help. Don't lay on the floor (my fave spot) because you're likely to feel the thunder, lie on the couch or your bed instead. Deep breathing. Turn off the news unless your area is prone to tornados.
posted by PorcineWithMe at 9:54 AM on March 15, 2012

90% of humans struck by lightning survive the strike. More than 95% of wooden structures struck be lightning suffer no ill effects other than damage to the electrical system. Unplug everything, don't stand by windows, don't talk on a landline phone, and the odds are overwhelmingly in your favor that nothing bad will happen to you or your house or your possessions.

When I lived in NJ, my house was struck by lightning three or four times, and the only casualty was my answering machine.
posted by Sidhedevil at 9:55 AM on March 15, 2012 [3 favorites]

I know you're a person, not a dog, but I have a friend who made her own thundershirt from a tight jacket (for herself) and says it helps her keep calm in thunderstorms/loud street construction etc.
posted by The otter lady at 9:57 AM on March 15, 2012 [1 favorite]

Can you hang out with some friends tonight and maybe stay over at their place? It might help you to have some company. When this blows over I think you should consult a counselor ASAP. This is exactly the sort of thing they are there for!

My house was struck by lightning when I was little. I remember there was a really loud CLAP! and then I saw a blue light zoom through the kitchen. The house was fine, but my dad had to check out all the wiring.

And my fiance's sister has been struck by lightning twice! She's a little loopy but otherwise just dandy.
posted by pintapicasso at 9:58 AM on March 15, 2012 [1 favorite]

If you are that worried about lightning striking your house, you can install a lightning rod system. It costs a like $600-$800 for parts and labor to have it installed. You should have an electrician install it - but most electricians do not know much about these systems. If you buy the parts on-line, I am sure with some diligence, you can find an electrician who will install it.

Once installed, your house is pretty much safe from lightning
posted by Flood at 10:02 AM on March 15, 2012

Do you have a reassuring friend you can hang around with?

Also: it is by no means a foregone conclusion that a house that is hit by lightning will catch fire. Sometimes the place where the lightning strikes might get damaged a lot, mostly the damage is minor or not at all. You will be super-safe in the basement, regardless.

And most people are at least a little bit afraid of thunderstorms! Your fear has just gotten kind of out of control. You will be OK. But you probably want to see someone who can help you get over the phobia when you can.
posted by mskyle at 10:04 AM on March 15, 2012

I know that the house/household objects end up catching on fire.

Nope. When I was a kid our tv ended up not working properly after a thunderstorm - it developed a purple cast over one side of the screen, iirc - but no sparks/fire. Our neighbour's tv broke totally (in the same storm), but also without setting anything on fire. Has never happened again in 20 years. My mum is now very conscious of making sure her computer and anything else electrical is unplugged if there's a thunderstorm about (and don't forget to disconnect the router from the phone line, too).

In the long term, as well as seeing about counselling and/or anti-anxiety medication, as a practical measure it may be worth getting a lightning conductor fitted to your house (ymmv, where I come from houses are made of stone with chimneys higher than the roofline, I have no idea if lightning conductors are suitable for other types of houses, e.g. wooden ones).
posted by Lebannen at 10:05 AM on March 15, 2012

Growing up in the Midwest, we had thunderstorms all the time, and I remember three different lightning strikes - one to a transformer, which knocked out the neighborhood's power for a night; one that hit the curb across the street (or the tree, and cracked the curb) - that was very loud, but harmless; and one to a neighbor's house, with no damage. I know rational thought is hard in the face of a phobia, but I hope this anecdotal experience helps.
posted by agregoli at 10:10 AM on March 15, 2012

My house has been struck by lightning twice (indirectly). The first time I was quite young, and it was at night. I was in bed with my sister, and my parents were in their room across the hall. We were all still awake. At the time we had a TV antenna on our house and the lightning struck that. It was an incredibly loud bang, I remember the ceiling light flashing on (I think other lights flashed on too, but that was the one I was looking at) for a second due to the electric charge, and then it was quiet. The bang scared me more than anything, and then my dad trying to figure out what exactly happened freaked me out a bit too. Turns out, it fried the TV in their room, one electrical outlet where the TV was plugged in to, and the antenna wires had to be rerun. Other than that, no damage and no fire.

The second time I was older, and lightning hit a tall pine tree that was very close to the house. It ran down the tree and jumped over to the end of the roof. Once again, it was a loud bang, but this time we smelled burning pine tree sap. It was during the day, so we checked everything out and there was no smoke, but the burning pine tree smell was weird. It wound up killing the tree (which we had removed) and splintered one part of one roof rafter where it made direct contact. I think it also messed up a cordless phone, but I can't remember.

Both experiences made my heart race because of the suddeness of it happening, and got my adrenaline flowing pretty good (like being scared out of your wits suddenly, or being in a car accident). But it didn't make me more fearful of actually fascinated me and urged me to learn more about lightning.

Keep yourself safe by hanging out in the basement, don't be playing around on electrical appliances, and do what you can to relax. If you are inside and in the basement, lightning will strike another taller object before it tries to strike you, so you will be safe. Just do your best to keep yourself relaxed as the storms pass over. And the great thing about a line of storms means that (depending on their speed and direction) they could be past you in an hour. So the anxiety may not last all night long. That might help you relax.
posted by MultiFaceted at 10:14 AM on March 15, 2012 [1 favorite]

If the power goes out, it might make you feel even more anxious. You could prepare a safe area by making sure you have a small light source always on hand - a flashlight app, a real mini flashlight - to help you get to your prepared light source if that happens. A powerful flashlight or even camping lantern, as well as a bunch of candles and a lighter or two, might be good. I love candles anyway, so there are a number of them around our house just waiting to be lit.

Hang in there!
posted by Occula at 10:17 AM on March 15, 2012 [1 favorite]

Also, keep in mind that when you had your thunderstorm experience, you were elevated and "closer" to the actual energy of the storm. Being inside and in your basement keeps you isolated from such energy, so remind yourself that you aren't in the middle of it, you are WAY more protected than you were rock climbing, and you are doing everything you can to stay safe. You'll be fine!
posted by MultiFaceted at 10:17 AM on March 15, 2012

Do you have a window where you can see a long way? The best thing I did for the fear was make sure I had no metal on me and watch a storm come in. It was a wonderful fireworks show, except the clap from the fireworks was out of sync. Count 1 Mississippi, 2 Mississippi, etc. Divide the number by 5 to find out how many miles away it is, or multiply by 340 for meters. That helps to track if it is getting better or worse.

For another anecdote: As a kid a telephone poll down the street got hit. The phone wires apparently carried the current into our house and fried my computer via the modem (the surge surge suppressor had no place for it) but everything else was ok.
posted by jwells at 10:18 AM on March 15, 2012

Best answer: Given the nature of phobias, maybe it's futile to try to reason with yourself, but maybe it will help: Lightning wants to find the shortest path (electrically) to the ground. Air is a bad conductor. Wood is mediocre. Water is pretty good (and humans, too, being made mostly of water). Metal is fantastic.

Lightning strikes trees and the tops of buildings because they represent a path to the ground that has less resistance than the air. When it strikes, it goes straight into the ground through the shortest path. If you're standing inside, it is NOT going to go through you--- going up into your body and back down is a much longer path than going through the floor beneath you. You are totally safe unless maybe you're standing in a bath. It's essentially a Faraday cage made out of wood. There's some small risk of fire (wood heats up when electricity passes through it), but house fires caused by lightning are rare. It can damage electronics, but like others have said, they're not going to catch on fire.

So when a thunder storm is approaching, stay inside. There's no point in going to the basement; it's not a tornado.

So that's the rational side. You're safe. For the irrational side, if I felt this way about thunderstorms, I would just knock myself out with sleeping medicine until the storm passed and start looking for a therapist in the morning.
posted by qxntpqbbbqxl at 10:22 AM on March 15, 2012

I grew up in East Texas, down at the tip of Tornado Alley. We saw lightning inside the house every so often. It'll make your hair stand up, and we often had to replace the cable boxes. Replacing a cable box IS traumatic, but not THAT traumatic.

You've probably not ever seen news reports on neighborhoods of burning houses with holes in the roof after every rainstorm in the world. Kansas wouldn't even exist anymore if that was true. Folks do lose barns and other not-exactly-built-to-code structures sometimes - because they don't have lightning mitigation like all modern legally-constructed structures do. Stay out of barns. Go to a large commercial building if you can - large businesses aren't going to risk their electronic equipment, they'll be well-mitigated.

You may be partially suffering from a sensitivity to the change in barometric pressure that comes ahead of a storm. Everyone feels it, it just doesn't make everyone anxious.

My advice would be to go to the movies. Everyone's saying that John Carter is better than the trailers looked, and it'll probably be plenty loud.
posted by Lyn Never at 10:27 AM on March 15, 2012

I'm a nervous flyer, and when my mind imagines something is wrong with the airplane, or that this turbulence is going to knock us out of the sky, I look at the flight attendants. If they're going about their business normally, it helps a little bit. Do you have any friends that enjoy thunderstorms? Being around them might help a little bit.

I grew up in the midwest and thunderstorms scared me shitless as a child, and the tornado sirens / beepy noises on the TV made it even worse. For what it's worth I don't think your reaction is strange given that you didn't grow up around them. Thunderstorms can be extremely violent and unpredictable.
posted by MillMan at 10:45 AM on March 15, 2012

From another angle, read about infrasound, which is known to cause anxiety and fearful feelings and does accompany thunderstorms.
posted by bookdragoness at 11:14 AM on March 15, 2012

Look at it this way - when you grow up in a thunderstorm-prone area, you go through this fear as a kid. You climb into bed with Mom and Dad when the big storms roll through. It's socially acceptable for kids to go through this. However, you did not get the benefit of those few years of being comforted through the storms and don't have the association of "Thunderstorm = Snuggling between warm and comfy parents" that has replaced your fear, unlike the people who grew up there. So don't be too hard on yourself, okay? You just have some catching up to do.

Try to do things during the storm to associate them with happy things. Personally, I like to turn on one of our local weathermen, who is just SO enthusiastic and excited about weather events that he always makes me giggle. Over time, you'll break the association that "Thunderstorms = Bloody terrifying."

For tonight - can you have a friend stay with you? Someone from the area who is used to storms and can reassure you what's normal?
posted by Addlepated at 11:16 AM on March 15, 2012

Allow me to share a silly thunderstorm story. A housemate had a St. Bernard, a dog she rescued from the pound. This gigantic dog was absolutely terrrrrified of thunderstorms. One hot summer day the dog was lying in its usual shady spot outside between the sidewalk and the street when thunder sounded in the distance. Just then a convertible drove by with its top down. The dog leaped faster than I'd ever seen it move into the backseat of the convertible. Fortunately, the driver and passenger- both young college students- thought this was hilarious, and it was.
posted by mareli at 11:57 AM on March 15, 2012 [2 favorites]

I've been close to several lightning strikes! Barns: 4 or 5 times, the house a few times and once lightning struck a telephone pole I was standing under. No fires, although a giant ball of blue flame did shoot over my head along the telephone line and into the side of the house. The only damage was to the phones, which all died so yeah, unplug stuff if you can.
posted by fshgrl at 11:58 AM on March 15, 2012

My daughter's school was grazed by a tornado while she was in it. Fortunately, nobody at the school was hurt but she did develop a phobia of storms. The therapist we took her to said helping her feel more in control of the situation would help. For us that means going to the basement, having a battery powered lamp and radio, and watching the weather radar (here's the map for our area) to gauge the severity and duration of the storm. My daughter likes having the windows covered so she can't see the lightening, and she puts on over-the-ear headphones to listen to music while I monitor the radar. When we have advanced notice of approaching storms, I make sure my cell phone/iPod/laptop are fully charged. We'll also set up our basement like we're going to have a sleepover, with snacks, games, and our favorite pillows and blankets.
posted by hoppytoad at 12:10 PM on March 15, 2012

Nthing that you should unplug stuff. A building I was living in in NJ once was struck by lightning; we lost some electronics and one of our AC window units never worked quite right afterwards. There was no fire and no harm. Far more common was a strike to a transformer or some other part of the grid that took down my power without harming my house. I've lived in parts of the world with significant thunderstorms most of my life and I love them, but that's the only time I've been in a building that was struck to my knowledge. It's not that common.

(Also, I've been treated for a phobia, and it does make things better. I don't like the object of my phobia and still find it vastly uncomfortable-making but I no longer have panic attacks and hit people. Hang in there and do get therapy ASAP.)
posted by immlass at 8:28 AM on March 16, 2012

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