Do you find yourself avoiding being in darkness? Do you sweat, shake, feel anxious or ill at the mere thought of the lights going out at night? If so, it could be that you have a fear of the dark phobia.
Fear of the dark is one of the most common phobias, especially for children. Even children who don’t have a phobia will commonly think about what might happen if they’re alone in the dark.
For those with a phobia, this worry can be irrationally powerful, with their brain conjuring up vivid and frightening images of what might be hiding in the shadows.
But many adults also still experience it, and it can lead to a range of personal and social problems. For example, adults might avoid dark spaces as much as possible, feel anxious or depressed, and refuse to sleep alone.
In this article, you’ll find out what can cause the phobia, the symptoms and approaches to treatment. I’ll also discuss some fascinating research showing that it might be the cause of insomnia for many adults.
Did you know?
There are 4 different terms for this phobia:
Nowadays, the term nyctophobia is most commonly used, followed by achluophobia. If you investigate the history of the 4 words there may be some small differences in exact meaning. In this article, I’ll refer to it generally as nyctophobia.
Nyctophobia comes from two Greek words:
- Nyctus – night or darkness
- Phobos – fear
It’s hard to find reliable statistics about nyctophobia. In 2017, a poll of 2000 British adults by Bensons for Beds revealed that 17% regularly sleep with a light on. And 20% do some bedtime checks, like closing wardrobe doors and making sure there’s nothing lurking under the bed.
According to the statistic brain website, 11% of the US population suffers from a fear of the dark phobia.
Interestingly it’s the fourth most common phobia according to them, with public speaking at number one, followed by a fear of death and spiders.
That number does seem a little high though, especially if you consider that the Royal College of Psychiatrists states that 1 in 10 adults will experience any anxiety or phobia at some point in their lives.
Whatever the exact number may be though, it’s clear that a large number of people are frightened by darkness, both children and adults.
Causes of nyctophobia
A popular evolutionary theory is that being scared of the dark was useful in the past. Our ancestors were more likely to be attacked by nocturnal predators, so they developed a practical anxiety about being vulnerable at night.
This would help keep children safe, as it takes a few years for them to realize that whilst dangerous, it wasn’t necessary to fear the dark.
In modern times, experts believe that nyctophobia is commonly associated with a traumatic experience in the past.
It’s understandable that small children are afraid of the dark with their highly active imaginations. But for a diagnosed phobia to continue into adulthood, they might have experienced trauma such as:
- Life-threatening situations: crashes, fires or other accidents.
- Childhood sexual or physical abuse, or neglect. Some children are punished by being kept in the dark for example.
- Exposure to films, television, literature and stories containing horror, gore, ghost and paranormal activity.
- Adult torture, attack or mistreatment.
In addition to this, the Royal College of Psychiatrists points out that many other factors can play a role: some people are genetically more likely to experience anxiety; drugs, alcohol and stimulants like caffeine can also lead to increased anxiety levels.
Some mental health problems can lead to irrational fears and anxieties. And even some physical illnesses, such as thyroid conditions.
Younger children might exhibit some of the following behaviors when faced with being in the dark:
- Tantrums and screaming
- Regression to baby talk
- Refusal to sleep without a light on
- Wanting to sleep with parents
- Fear of monsters
Older children and adults may develop some of the following physical and psychological symptoms:
- Breathing problems: shallow, fast breathing
- Chest pain, heart palpitations or feeling choked
- Feeling sick
- Low appetite or binge eating
- Shivering or shaking
- Aches, pains and soreness
Emotional and social signs and symptoms
- Thinking about death
- Feeling intense fear
- Fear of being attacked by monsters, ghosts or other bad entities
- Repeated checking of places in the house for monsters
- Refusing to sleep alone
- Refusing to go out after dark, or into dark places or rooms
- Feeling like running away when thinking about being in the dark
- Trying to stay awake all night
- Sleeping with a light or television on
- Depressive disorders
- Disruption to sleep
- Problems with school or work
Helping children with a fear of the dark
It’s a natural and healthy part of a child’s development to be scared of the dark. But if it becomes an issue which affects their well-being, it’s helpful to speak to a doctor about it.
It may be tempting to rationalize with young children, but this can be difficult; young children don’t tend to deal with rationalizing very well.
So telling them that their fear of monsters is silly because there aren’t any monsters might not have the effect you desire. It may just make them embarrassed and less likely to talk to you about it.
Instead, it’s important to listen to them and make them feel understood. Limit how much TV they watch before bed, and be careful older members of the household don’t expose them to scary things.
You can spend some quality time with them before bed and do something relaxing and positive such as reading, drawing or talking. Then you can ask if they want to be checked on after a few minutes or an hour. And if they feel they need a comforter, teddy, night light or blanket, then make sure they have it.
Finally, one of the best ways to help them feel good about going to sleep is to ensure they have a calming and consistent bedtime routine.
The good news is that phobias are treatable at any age. So if you’re afraid of the dark and it’s causing you significant distress or problems, it’s a good idea to seek professional help.
Depending on your access to healthcare, you may be able to ask your doctor for a referral to a therapist. In severe cases they may prescribe medication to help you with your anxiety. But they are more likely to recommend either therapy or self-help.
Cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) is the most common approach for treating anxiety disorders like phobias. It’s known to be an effective way of treating them, and can have a positive result in just a few sessions.
The therapist may help you to uncover the root of the phobia, and help you identify the thought process you go through, and then restructure that process.
They might decide to help you with a technique called systematic desensitization. That means gradually spending time in situations which spark the fear, but in small, safe and controlled steps. That way you slowly but surely learn to overcome the anxiety, only taking the next step when you feel comfortable.
There’s also the option of self-help. This is great if you don’t have access to professional help. And even if you do, self-help can be an empowering and effective path to take. For some ideas about how to do this, have a look at the excellent phobias and fears page on the helpguide.com website.
Nyctophobia a major cause for adult insomnia?
In 2012, researchers at Ryerson University Sleep & Depression Laboratory in Toronto showed that many adults with insomnia may in fact be afraid of the dark.
Reported in science daily, the study leader Dr Carney said that some insomniacs they treat would sleep with a light, television or computer left on. Some would fall asleep on the couch, but when they woke up and went to bed wouldn’t be able to fall asleep again.
In the study, 93 college students were given 2 questionnaires: the insomnia severity index and a fear of the dark questionnaire.
They discovered that nearly half admitted to having a fear of the dark phobia. Furthermore, 46% of poor sleepers admitted this compared to 26% of good sleepers.
The researchers also conducted an objective test of fear of the dark using the startle reflex, whereby subjects would blink in response to a stimulus.
The students wore headsets and small bursts of noise would be played sporadically. They found that when tested with a light on, both good and poor sleepers responded to the noises in the same manner. However, when it was done in the dark, the poor sleepers were more startled.
Furthermore, they found that as time went on during the experiment, the poor sleepers would continue to be startled each time it happened. In contrast, the good sleepers got used to the disturbance.
Implications for insomnia treatment
Dr Carney says that this study could have implications for the treatment of insomnia, particularly Cognitive Behavioral Therapy.
A CBT practitioner might suggest a patient leaves the bedroom if they can’t sleep, then return and try to sleep later.
However, it might not be so effective if there’s an underlying phobia. Every time they return to the dark bedroom, the fear would come back, thus preventing them from falling asleep. So CBT would have to perhaps involve the treatment of the phobia first.
So perhaps if you’ve tried getting up and going into another room when you can’t sleep, but find you still can’t when you return, it might be worth trying out a night light to see if it makes a difference.
Are you or your child scared of the dark? How has it affected your life and how have you coped with it until now?
Feel free to share your story in the comments below.
Anxiety, Panic and Phobias (Anxiety panic phobias) http://www.rcpsych.ac.uk/expertadvice/problemsdisorders/anxiety,panic,phobias.aspx
Beesdo, Katja, Susanne Knappe, and Daniel S. Pine. “Anxiety and Anxiety Disorders in Children and Adolescents: Developmental Issues and Implications for DSM-V.” The Psychiatric clinics of North America 32.3 (2009): 483–524. PMC. Web. 2 Sept. 2015.
American Academy of Sleep Medicine. “Some adults with sleep disturbances are actually afraid of the dark, study says.” ScienceDaily. ScienceDaily, 11 June 2012
Phobias and Fears (Symptoms, Treatment, and Self-Help) http://www.helpguide.org/articles/anxiety/phobias-and-fears.htm