Network News

X My Profile
View More Activity
Column Archive |  On Twitter: J Huget and MisFits  |  Fitness & Nutrition News  |  RSS Feeds RSS Feed

Fatal strike raises fear of lightning

(Photo Disc)

As thunderstorm season gets underway, I will cop to having an irrational fear of lightning. I have bounded down a mountain trail in a thunderstorm, terrified of being struck. I have practically cattle-prodded my kids off the beach at the first sign of a storm. I have trembled in a canvas Cub Scout tent in the woods, wondering if the cots my family lay on would conduct. When I hear thunder, my heart seizes up; I can't think straight. I'm really, really scared of lightning.

What I can't figure out is whether my fear is really all that irrational.

The horrifying account of a 25-year-old Tennessee woman being struck after having hiked with her about-to-become-fiance to a mountain peak dredged up my fears, which have been simmering for the past few thunderstormy weeks anyway.

Of course, the odds are most against being killed by lightning. Research published in 2005 found the incidence of death from lightning to be 0.23 per million. That's less than a quarter of one in a million.

Yet I know a woman whose husband was killed by lightning while he was at the beach. (I also know a young man who was struck while standing on a hotel balcony at the beach; luckily, he survived.) You hear about people being struck and killed by lightning all the time. I'm more swayed by those real-life occurrences than by the statistics.

The strange thing is that I wasn't scared of lightning when I was a kid. My family used to make a point of sitting on the front porch during thunderstorms, watching the rain pound the lawn and lightning light up the sky.

Turns out it's neither unusual to be scared of lightning or to have that fear first appear in adulthood. Greta Hirsch, clinical director of the Ross Center for Anxiety & Related Disorders, Inc., tells me that "millions of people suffer" from lightning phobia. "It's definitely in the top-ten list of phobias that people do report," she says. "In some people it starts in childhood, and in some people it starts in adulthood."

Nobody's sure what triggers brontophobia (the fear of thunderstorms). Hirsch says that some people develop the fear after being caught in a bad storm or getting a little electric shock from something else. Or it can be "just general stress in one's life" that expresses itself in this form.

Apparently mine is a relatively mild case: I only get scared when a thunderstorm is imminent and I (or my loved ones) am outdoors. Others have it worse, refusing to leave their homes when rain is predicted or hiding in a closet during a storm.

This particular phobia, like so many others, is treatable, Hirsch says. Typical treatment involves "graded exposure," which varies according to the "extremity of the person's fear." A highly anxious person might start by just taking a walk when rain's in the forecast, eventually proceed to taking public transportation and going shopping, and ultimately "camp in a tent without checking the forecast," Hirsch explains.

In any case, Hirsch says, lightning phobia is the result of having an "anxious mind."

"What happens in the anxious mind," she says, "is that it overestimates the likelihood of how dangerous this is."

"Over a life, a person has a 1 in 7 million chance of being hit by lightning," Hirsch notes. "The likelihood of it's happening on a given day" is very small, she adds. Plus, she points out, "Seventy-one percent of people who strike survive."

That's a stat I can cling to.

Are you afraid of lightning? How do you cope with your phobia?

By Jennifer LaRue Huget  |  June 14, 2010; 7:00 AM ET
Categories:  Family Health , General Health  
Save & Share:  Send E-mail   Facebook   Twitter   Digg   Yahoo Buzz   StumbleUpon   Technorati   Google Buzz   Previous: Is that right? What is 'extra-virgin' olive oil?
Next: Which comes first, depression or weight gain?


I on the other hand have slept soundly in a roaring thunderstorm in a tent @ 8k ft. in southcentral Colorado atop a ridge. Spent the summer building a cabin on property I own.

The secret? I'm a registered electrical engineer [electric power -high voltage]. And I know a great deal about lightning strikes. It helps being a fatalist, too.

Good luck with your hikes.

Thanks much. HLB Engineering

Posted by: HLBeckPE | June 14, 2010 11:10 AM | Report abuse

I got caught away from the car down the W&OD Trail in a thunderstorm. I saw the storm coming from the west but thought I could run my route down the Trail and back to the car ahead of the storm. The car was in the parking lot of the Farmwell Station Middle School in Ashburn near an entrance from the lot to the Trail.

The Trail is very straight and level near the middle school. The electric company has its high-voltage lines on towers alongside the trail. I was on my way back on the Trail in a downpour about a mile or so from the car.

Two miles or so ahead of me lightning struck. Instantly the electric lines directly above me were crackling.

Never again.

Posted by: cmckeonjr | June 14, 2010 11:49 AM | Report abuse

Not add to the phobia but I am a lightning survivor. I was stuck while standing in my bedroom answering a junk phone call on my landline phone. The pole outside my bedroom window took a hit. It was like being hit by a hammer. I was knocked out. When I woke hours later my right arm was paralyzed (the one holding the phone) and I was deaf in both ears. I was lucky I recovered after a few days. My phone was trashed and when the phone company lineman climbed the pole to put in a new junction box, he showed me where the old phone junction box got hit. There was just a small burn mark. I don't answer my landline phone during thunderstorms anymore.

Posted by: stargazer2 | June 14, 2010 12:29 PM | Report abuse

Lightning kills, what, 30 people annually in the US?

Car accidents kill 30,000+ American annually.

Heart disease? 800,000+ deaths annually.

So sure, take reasonable precautions if you're outdoors during a storm.

But as you worry about lightning, make sure you worry 1,000 times more about driving safely, and 25,000 times more about eating right and exercising.

Posted by: kcx7 | June 14, 2010 1:00 PM | Report abuse

The family dog liked to sleep on the front porch. One afternoon, an errant storm rolled in. Lightning struck the 1940s front door doorbell, causing it to ring wildly for about 5 minutes. It never worked again, and the dog hated storms until the day she died. Bizarre, as the house was surrounded by tall trees and at a fairly low elevation...

Posted by: bluestilton | June 14, 2010 1:12 PM | Report abuse

I had lightning come through an open window and hit a doorknob about a foot from me. I close my windows now. I also don't get out of my car when a storm is immediately overhead. Other than that, yes, I'm terrified, but, no, I try not to let it affect me.

Posted by: Fabrisse | June 14, 2010 2:50 PM | Report abuse

I hate thunderstorms when I was a kid, but now I love them. I don't love them when I'm in a 35' sailboat in the middle of a race and there's no way I would drop out of the race, but at least I'm getting used to that situation. The trick is to sail near bigger boats and convince yourself they the other boats will get hit instead.

Posted by: capecodner424 | June 14, 2010 2:57 PM | Report abuse

The author makes the point that 71% of lightening strike victims survive but fails to mention that many of these "survivors" suffer
from various nervous/neurological ailments for the rest of their lives. Doctors used to refuse to believe this but now have come around.

Also, the author fails to mention the safest place during a lightening storm--your car. The tires insulate the car's body from the ground and do not allow a "equalization of electric potential" which is, after all, what lightening is.

Posted by: garbage1 | June 14, 2010 4:59 PM | Report abuse

To correct a misconception: a car is safe because the metal frame of the car provides a better path for the electricity than your body, so the electric current takes that path of least resistance. The rubber tires have NOTHING to do with it.

And being in a building with a modern lightning protection system is much safer than being in a car.

Posted by: kcx7 | June 14, 2010 5:07 PM | Report abuse

I was not particularly afraid of thunderstorms until two summers ago. There was not a cloud in the sky but I could hear thunder when I went outside to look for my cat. Within 30 seconds of coming in the house a bolt of lightening hit a tree not ten feet from where I had been standing. The tree was destroyed and fell on our roof. All of our appliances and those of our immediate neighbors were affected and some windows were blown out. Now I have a healthy respect for lighening and will not be outside if I hear thunder even if the sky above me is blue with no clouds. I would have been toast if the bolt had struck me.

Posted by: EFDTN | June 14, 2010 7:18 PM | Report abuse

I myself do not have a fear of lighting, however, I suspect your fear is the same fear I get while crossing bridges. This particular fear only came about after a cross wind hit me while driving across a bridge one day and ever since, I get anxious, nervous and tense up whenever I approach a bridge. I suspect our fears are analogous with one another in this respect. One statement in the article was helpful for me ( "What happens in the anxious mind, she says, "is that it overestimates the likelihood of how dangerous this is".) I talk to myself when ever I'm on a bridge and tell myself how ridiculous my reaction is, but it doesn't help, I'm still nervous. Hopefully, in the future, I'll be able to convince my "mind", that I'm overestimating the likelihood of how dangerous this is...

Posted by: WhitneyDavid | June 15, 2010 8:34 AM | Report abuse

Hmm. If you're afraid of lightning while standing on a mountain peak or in an open space during a thunder and lightning storm, that's sensible. it's not a phobia.

What are the statistics of being struck by lightning in those circumstances? Quite a bit more than in the study this author quotes.

What's the sensible thing to do to be safe in a lightning storm?
Seek Shelter

* Look for a large, enclosed building when a thunder or lightning storm threatens. That's the best choice.
* If you are in a car and it has a hard top, stay inside and keep the windows rolled up.
* Avoid small sheds and lean-tos or partial shelters, like pavilions.
* Stay at least a few feet away from open windows, sinks, toilets, tubs, showers, electric boxes and outlets, and appliances. Lightning can flow through these symptoms and "jump" to a person.
* Do not shower or take a bath during a thunder or lightning storm
* Avoid using regular telephones, except in an emergency. If lightning hits the telephone lines, it could flow to the phone. Cell or cordless phones, not connected to the building's wiring, are safe to use.

If you are caught outside: (If you are unable to reach a safe building or car, knowing what to do can save your life.)

* If your skin tingles or your hair stands on the end, a lightning strike may be about to happen. Crouch down on the balls of your feet with your feet close together. Keep your hands on your knees and lower your head. Get as low as possible without touching your hands or knees to the ground. DO NOT LIE DOWN!
* If you are swimming, fishing or boating and there are clouds, dark skies and distant rumbles of thunder or flashes of lightning, get to land immediately and seek shelter.
* If you are in a boat and cannot get to shore, crouch down in the middle of the boat. Go below if possible.
* If you are on land, find a low spot away from trees, metal fences, pipes, tall or long objects.
* If you are in the woods, look for an area of shorter trees. Crouch down away from tree trunks.


The ongoing conversation about how it's statistically practically impossible to be hit by lightning is a popular one, but not useful.

What is the chance of someone reading this post? I give it 1 in a million.

Posted by: bd2004 | June 16, 2010 8:20 AM | Report abuse

The comments to this entry are closed.

RSS Feed
Subscribe to The Post

© 2010 The Washington Post Company