Fear of the dark, also known as nyctophobia or achluophobia, is an excessive and irrational fear of darkness. This fear can be triggered by being in any dark environment, but most commonly occurs at night. It is estimated that nyctophobia affects around 10% of adults and twice as many children. While a healthy fear of the dark can protect us from danger, an excessive fear is often disruptive and distressing.
What causes a fear of the dark?
There are several potential causes of nyctophobia:
- Traumatic past experiences – Having a traumatic encounter in the dark as a child, such as getting lost or being attacked, can lead to associating darkness with danger.
- Active imagination – Having an active imagination and visualizing frightening scenarios in the dark can bring about intense fear.
- Belief in the supernatural – Believing in ghosts, monsters or other supernatural beings that may inhabit the dark can make the dark seem threatening.
- Media influence – Scary movies, stories and images that portray the dark as dangerous can exacerbate a fear of the dark.
- Separation anxiety – Being unable to see loved ones or familiar surroundings in the dark can trigger worries about being alone or lost.
Signs and symptoms
People with nyctophobia experience both psychological and physiological symptoms when encountering darkness or thinking about being in the dark. Common signs and symptoms include:
- Intense fear, panic or dread
- Rapid heartbeat
- Sweating or chills
- Shortness of breath
- Nausea or stomach pain
- Feeling unable to move or paralyzed
- Screaming or crying
- Clinging to others
In children, signs may also include trouble sleeping alone at night or bedwetting. In severe cases, someone with nyctophobia may go to great lengths to avoid dark places or situations.
While anyone can develop nyctophobia, certain factors can increase risk:
- Being female – Women are twice as likely to fear the dark.
- Family history – Having a close relative with nyctophobia or other phobia puts you at higher risk.
- Trauma – Experiencing a traumatic event related to darkness makes the phobia more likely.
- Age – Nyctophobia is more common in children but can develop at any age.
- Active imagination – Visualizing scary scenarios can bring about an excessive fear.
While not inherently dangerous, an extreme fear of the dark can lead to the following complications:
- Sleep problems like insomnia
- Social isolation or difficulties leaving home at night
- Depression or anxiety when avoiding the dark becomes difficult
- Impaired work performance or school attendance
- Strained relationships due to avoidance behaviors
- Substance abuse as a coping mechanism
When to see a doctor
It’s advisable to see a doctor or mental health professional if:
- Fear of the dark disrupts daily activities
- Symptoms last more than 6 months
- Symptoms onset suddenly in adulthood
- Other mental health conditions like depression are present
- Substance abuse develops as a coping mechanism
- Self-harming behaviors emerge
A licensed therapist can provide an official diagnosis of nyctophobia and the appropriate treatment options.
Nyctophobia is diagnosed through a psychological evaluation examining symptoms, triggers, and ability to function. Diagnostic criteria include:
- Extreme fear or anxiety about darkness
- Recognizing that fear is excessive
- Avoiding dark places whenever possible
- Enduring dark situations only with intense fear or anxiety
- Disruptions to normal routine, work, relationships or well-being
Other anxiety disorders or phobias may be present. The doctor may do a vision exam or blood work to identify any medical factors contributing to light sensitivity.
A number of effective treatments can help overcome nyctophobia:
- Exposure therapy – Gradually facing feared dark situations in a controlled way to become desensitized.
- Cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) – Identifying and changing negative thought patterns about darkness.
- Relaxation techniques -Learning techniques like deep breathing and meditation to manage fear.
- Medications – Anti-anxiety or antidepressant medications may be prescribed in severe cases.
- Hypnosis – Hypnosis led by a therapist may help reframe associations with darkness.
Home remedies likeExercise, limiting caffeine, and using nightlights or flashlights can also help reduce fear levels.
In addition to professional treatment, the following self-help coping strategies may be beneficial:
- Use ambient lights, flashlights or nightlights when in the dark
- Avoid watching or reading anything frightening before bedtime
- Stick to a regular sleep schedule
- Keep a comfort object like a stuffed animal when sleeping
- Use calming essential oils like lavender oil
- Practice deep breathing when feeling afraid
- Repeat positive affirmations like “I am safe”
- Try cognitive restructuring to replace scary thoughts with realistic ones
- Get a pet for companionship at night
Joining a support group to share experiences can also provide great coping help when overcoming nyctophobia.
While not always possible, the following measures may help prevent the development of nyctophobia:
- Keeping nightlights on for children
- Leaving doors open at night
- Encouraging children to verbalize fears
- Avoiding scary stories, films or images for kids
- Not disciplining with threats of monsters or darkness
- Getting night vision tested if needed
- Treating early childhood sleep disruptions
- Counseling after traumatic events
Providing consistent reassurance and comfort around bedtime can help make the dark seem less threatening.
The outlook for overcoming nyctophobia is excellent with professional treatment. Therapy leads to significant improvement for around 80% of people. The most effective treatment is a combination of exposure therapy and medications. Mild childhood cases may resolve on their own over time. Anxiety may temporarily resurface due to triggers like horror media or trauma.
- Nyctophobia is an excessive fear of darkness causing anxiety and avoidance.
- It’s believed to affect up to 10% of adults and more children.
- Trauma, imagination, supernatural beliefs and media are some causes.
- Symptoms include panic attacks, trouble sleeping, and depression.
- Exposure therapy, CBT, relaxation techniques and medications can help treat it.
- Self-help coping methods may also be beneficial.
- With therapy, most people see great improvement in their phobia.