Lilapsophobia: The Fear of Tornadoes or Hurricanes

Tornado
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What Is Lilapsophobia?

Lilapsophobia is the fear of tornadoes or hurricanes. Lilapsophobia is what’s known as a specific phobia, which the National Institute of Mental Health (NIMH) describes as "an intense, irrational fear of something that poses little or no actual danger."

Though tornadoes and hurricanes are dangerous, and many people fear them, a person with lilapsophobia has a level of fear that is above average. Their fear causes distress or disruption to their everyday life, even when they're not in any real danger of being affected by a tornado or hurricane.

This article covers the definition of lilapsophobia, as well as its symptoms, causes, diagnosis, and treatment.

Symptoms

Many of us have fears of inclement weather, and fear can be adaptive. For example, adaptive fear of storms can help a person be prepared for weather-related emergencies and motivate them to seek shelter when they need to. The symptoms of lilapsophobia, however, are not adaptive. In fact, they are often debilitating and actually prevent a person from functioning during a storm crisis.

Symptoms of lilapsophobia can occur whether or not a person is under the real threat of a tornado or hurricane. In fact, a person can be triggered just by thinking about a tornado or hurricane.

Symptoms of lilapsophobia include:

  • Anxiety
  • Constantly monitoring weather reports
  • Dizziness 
  • Feeling helpless
  • Feeling short of breath
  • Increase in heart rate
  • Lack of appetite
  • Nausea
  • Obsessive behavior
  • Panic
  • Sleep disturbances
  • Sweating

While it is rational to check weather forecasts before outdoor activities, if you have lilapsophobia, the weather controls your life. You might spend a great deal of time watching the weather forecast on TV or tracking storms online. You may even refuse to go outside on days when even mild storms are predicted.

When a storm hits, you may display behaviors such as constantly checking for weather alerts, hiding under the bed or in a closet, or even putting a full tornado plan into effect as soon as rain begins. You might listen closely to the storm for sounds of tornado activity, or you might attempt to drown out the storm altogether with loud music or movies.

Many people find that lilapsophobia is worsened by being alone. You might call friends in a panic, or arrange your schedule so that you are rarely alone. 

Over time, you might find that your daily activities become more and more restricted. You might become unwilling to enter buildings that you don't think are safe to be in during a storm, even on clear, sunny days. You may refuse to take part in outdoor activities or long road trips for fear that a storm might hit and result in a tornado or hurricane.

Causes

Like many phobias, the fear of tornadoes or hurricanes is often traced to a negative experience. Perhaps you have been affected by a tornado or hurricane that caused personal injury or property damage to you or someone you love. Or, you might’ve narrowly avoided injury or damage done by a tornado in a neighboring town or area.

If you have been through a truly devastating storm experience such as Hurricane Katrina, it is particularly important to seek professional advice. In addition to lilapsophobia, it is possible that you are experiencing post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD).

Lilapsophobia, like many phobias, may also be learned. If your parents, friends, or relatives are afraid of tornadoes or hurricanes, you may have picked up their fear.

If phobias run in your family, you may be more likely to develop one yourself. Studies note that similar to most mental health disorders, like other anxiety disorders and mood disorders, phobias seem to have a genetic influence.

There may also be another fear underlying your lilapsophobia. Research indicates that the fear of death actually plays a role in the predisposition to multiple mental health disorders. Speaking with a mental health professional can help you to understand what factors contribute to your lilapsophobia.

Diagnosis

The fifth edition of the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM) has criteria for clinicians to use to diagnose a specific phobia.

A doctor or mental health professional uses certain criteria to diagnose a phobia. If a patient answers "yes" to most of the following questions, it is likely they have a phobia:

  • Is the fear irrational, excessive, and persistent?
  • Is the fear out of proportion to any actual danger?
  • Do you use avoidance behavior to not come into contact with the object of your fear or anything having to do with it?
  • Does the phobia impact/disrupt your life (including at work, at school, or in your relationships)?
  • Have the duration of your symptoms lasted at least six months?

Lilapsophobia in Children

Many children exhibit a fear of extreme weather events, especially if they are influenced by the appearance of tornadoes or hurricanes in the media or when they overhear adult conversations. For instance, if a major storm is profiled on television or discussed by adults, children may become afraid that it will happen to them.

Because fears are a normal part of development, phobias are generally not diagnosed in children unless they persist for more than six months. Try to reassure your child about the relative rarity of major storms, and explain your storm readiness procedures to them. 

Of course, if their symptoms persist and your child is displaying unusual displays of anxiety, be sure to talk to a doctor about their fear.

Treatment

Like many phobias, lilapsophobia is often treated with therapy and medication. Lifestyle changes can also help alleviate anxiety caused by your phobia. 

Therapy

Cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) has been shown to be effective in lessening the symptoms of specific phobias. A therapist can work with you to examine the root causes of your phobia, how your anxiety disrupts your life, and ways you can reframe the object of your phobia to make it less frightening.

Exposure therapy may also be helpful in treating specific phobias. This is a therapeutic method in which a person is gradually exposed to the object of their fear in a supportive environment until they are able to face their fear while experiencing less distress.

You wouldn’t be asked to put yourself in any real danger by going out into a dangerous storm. But exposure therapy can be a helpful method of alleviating storm-related anxiety you face in your day-to-day life.

A therapist might work with you until you’re able to see a photo of a hurricane or watch news coverage, for instance, without experiencing debilitating anxiety.

If you're afraid of going outside in mild storms, you might set a goal in therapy to work toward stepping outside in the rain without feeling anxious.

Hypnotherapy has also been shown to help people with specific phobias. A hypnotherapist will discuss your fear with you as well as the triggers related to your phobia. You'll be guided into a hypnotic state so the therapist can offer your subconscious suggestions to overcome certain feelings, thoughts, and behaviors.

However, if your phobia stems from post-traumatic stress disorder, then other types of therapy may be more appropriate. Your therapist will be able to diagnose the root of your phobia and prescribe the best course of action.

Medication

A doctor might recommend a combination of therapy and medication to help you cope with symptoms of lilasophobia.

Medications prescribed for phobias include antidepressants such as selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors (SSRIs), which can help lessen anxiety and regulate mood. In certain cases, benzodiazepines such as Xanax (alprazolam) may be prescribed.

Benzodiazepines can be habit-forming. If prescribed, it's generally advised they are taken only for short periods of time under the close supervision of a healthcare provider.

Lifestyle Changes

Mindfulness techniques like deep breathing, yoga, or meditation can significantly help to reduce stress and promote feelings of relaxation. Start slowly and find the practices that work best for you. Developing a routine of mindfulness moments, even if it's just a few minutes a day, can help improve your anxiety.

Coping

In addition to seeking help from a mental health professional, you might explore other resources to cope with your lilapsophobia. Support groups can be helpful for people with specific phobias. Even if others in the group have different phobias than you, sharing your experience can be therapeutic.

Hearing from other people about how they handle their own phobia-related triggers and stressors in their daily lives can give you inspiration and motivation to cope with your lilapsophobia.

To find an accessible phobia support group, you can ask a mental health professional. Some online therapy services, like Talkspace, can help you find a support group that meets virtually as well.

If you or a loved one are struggling with a phobia, contact the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA) National Helpline at 1-800-662-4357 for information on support and treatment facilities in your area.

For more mental health resources, see our National Helpline Database.

Lilapsophobia in Popular Culture

Hollywood films such as "Twister" (1996) address the effects of lilapsophobia. In that film, Dr. Jo Harding, played by Helen Hunt, witnesses her father’s death in a tornado. As an adult, she fights the resulting lilapsophobia by becoming a storm chaser. The film features highly realistic footage of major tornadoes, so it may not comfortable for people with lilapsophobia to watch.

Tornadoes and hurricanes are a part of life, and today’s media offers the opportunity to view devastating storms and their aftermath repeatedly, in vivid detail. Although the news coverage is certainly important, it is equally important to put such coverage into perspective.

While small weather events happen frequently, mostly those that are severe are deemed newsworthy. Media coverage can easily lead to a skewed belief that serious storms are much more common than they actually are. You may want to avoid watching too much coverage of even mild weather if you find it worsens your symptoms of lilapsophobia.

A Word From Verywell

It can be challenging and frustrating to cope with lilapsophobia. It might seem like your anxiety and fear are constantly triggered. Know that you're not alone in dealing with a specific phobia, and there are resources to help you. To get started, talk to a mental health professional, consider attending regular therapy sessions, and try some mindfulness exercises to begin to relieve your anxiety.

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Verywell Mind uses only high-quality sources, including peer-reviewed studies, to support the facts within our articles. Read our editorial process to learn more about how we fact-check and keep our content accurate, reliable, and trustworthy.
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By Lisa Fritscher
Lisa Fritscher is a freelance writer and editor with a deep interest in phobias and other mental health topics.