Q&A with Professor Scott Compton, on phobias and anxiety

As the Triangle was looking to its first snowfall of the season, back in December, Compton, a clinical psychologist, was introducing the region to an unfamiliar term: chionophobia.

Chionophobia is a real thing?

It refers to fear of snow, and it’s within the cluster of natural-environment phobias, including fear of earthquakes, tornadoes, hurricanes, and, certainly these days, wildfires. People who are chionophobic struggle with the thought of snow. With just a mild snowfall, they might miss days at work because they’re housebound, or not show up for activities that are important to them. They express a range of behaviors that impair their day-to-day functioning, and they organize their life around their snow anxiety. They won’t be sleeping well at night. There might be constant trips to the grocery store, constant tuning-in to weather forecasts, constant checking of conditions outside.

How does fear of snow get embedded in someone’s mind?

Of course, even for people who don’t have the phobia, snow is still a hassle. They have to shovel it, they have to maneuver carefully as they drive in it. But most people associate snow with going sledding, making snowmen, gathering for the holidays—all positive things. I grew up in Northern California, not far from the Sierra Nevada Mountains, which is a good area for skiing. So I was in the snow a lot. For a chionophobic, there must have been a bad experience with snow. Maybe it was a car wreck in snowy weather, or slipping on ice and breaking a limb, or getting hit and injured by a snowball, or even watching a movie that comes to a tragic conclusion where snow is involved.

We can be very anxious about lots of things, right?

Generalized anxiety disorder is the most common anxiety disorder. It refers to people who worry a lot about different things, above and beyond normal worry. They can’t concentrate on other things; they can’t turn it off. Chionophobia is a more specific anxiety disorder, like a phobia around contact with dogs. The tricky thing about these phobias is the more you start listening to your irrational thoughts, the more you adjust your behavior to those thoughts. That means you’ll work to avoid a situation that would have you confronting the source of your anxiety, and so the phobia is going to take root—it’s going to be maintained.

How would you treat chionophobia in particular?

You have the person list his or her specific concerns around snow. You deal with the simplest one first, and gradually work your way up the hierarchy of concerns. It’s the same approach as dealing with dog phobia. Maybe the biggest fear is being assaulted by a big dog. You start by making the person comfortable around the most innocuous expression of a dog, like a stuffed dog, and from there, a puppy. The idea is to get them to turn toward the situation rather than to run away from it, to gradually build confidence so the person, for example, eventually can handle a German shepherd. For the chionophobic, maybe the biggest fear is getting frostbitten. You might start by having the person reflect on idyllic scenes of snowfall. And maybe you work up to a conversation with a doctor, so the person can develop a more rational respect for snow. Frostbite does happen. You don’t want them to be naïve about that risk, but rather to recalibrate that risk with knowledge.

Imagine someone who is phobic both around dogs and around snow, finds himself in a snowstorm, and is rescued by a Saint Bernard. That would address one of the phobias, I guess.

I would work hard to make that happen.

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