Fatal strike raises fear of lightning
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?
Jennifer LaRue Huget
June 14, 2010; 7:00 AM ET
Categories: Family Health , General Health
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