When I was thirteen, my parents bought an old house in the middle of the English countryside, with plans to turn it into something beautiful eventually.
Sounds like the start of a horror film, right?
This will probably sound even more cliché, but there was also an ancient church at the end of our road, complete with a small eerie graveyard.
Fortunately, the church grounds were easily avoided. But what really bothered me were the creeping vines that made it all the way up to my bedroom windows, tapping on them on windy nights.
After a few weeks, I pleaded with my dad to cut down the vines because they were too noisy. The noise was just an excuse, of course. Really, I hated lying in bed worrying that it was something other than vines knocking on my windows.
I didn’t admit it at the time, but I now know I was scared of the dark – in that house at least. Removing the vines helped (thanks dad!), but it took a couple of years before I became so used to the house’s personality that I no longer panicked in bed when it creaked at me.
If my worries about the dark sound in any way familiar to you, I hope this article will provide some comfort in knowing that you’re not the only one to have experienced this kind of fear.
And if you’re reading this late at night, sorry if my introduction was a bit spooky. The good news is that nothing bad ever happened in our house, and nowadays I’m totally fine with the dark.
So if I could overcome it, there’s hope for you too!
Did you know?
Fear of darkness or the nighttime has four possible names:
In this article, I’ll refer to it as nyctophobia, which comes from two Greek words:
- Nyctus – night
- Phobos – fear
A common fear
Normal for children
Fear of the dark is very common in children and in many cases it’s a normal part of development.
For example, in 2007 researchers studied a sample of 511 children and adolescents aged 8-16. Of those, 64.2% reported having nighttime fears. Interestingly, 72.9% of children reported fears, but the number reduced to 54.6% for adolescents.
So nighttime fears are only really considered a phobia if it continues into adulthood, or if the child finds it impossible to sleep or suffers from serious anxiety because of it.
It’s hard to find reliable statistics about nyctophobia in adults. 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 crawling around under the bed.
Perhaps a more reliable source is the Royal College of Psychiatrists, which suggests that 1 in 10 adults will experience any anxiety or phobia at some point in their lives. (The page on the above link has an encouraging video outlining the main treatment options for anxiety and some useful resources.)
Whatever the exact number may be, it’s clear that a large number of people are frightened by darkness – both children and adults.
My sister tells the story of how she would sometimes ask me to check the attic at night before we went to bed, and I would bravely do so with a flashlight in one hand and a large Transformers toy in the other! I doubt Optimus Prime would have helped much if I encountered a ghost, but he gave me some comfort and it made my sister laugh.
Causes of nyctophobia
One evolutionary theory is that being scared of the dark was useful in the past. Nocturnal predators would have been a risk for our ancestors, so it wasn’t a bad thing to be a little concerned by what’s lurking in the dark.
This might have helped keep children safe, with anxiety about beasts with sharp teeth or nasty stings stopping them from wandering off at night.
But why do some people grow out of it, while it turns into a stressful phobia for others?
In modern times, experts believe that nyctophobia is sometimes 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, like a crash, fire or other accident.
- 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 or 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 might be genetically more likely to experience anxiety. And some recreational drugs, alcohol, and stimulants like caffeine can also lead to increased anxiety levels.
They also suggest that some mental health problems can lead to irrational fears and anxieties. And certain physical illnesses can increase anxiety, such as thyroid conditions.
Younger children might exhibit some of the following behaviors when faced with being in the dark:
- Tantrums and screaming
- Thumb sucking
- 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:
- Shallow and/or fast breathing
- Chest pain, heart palpitations or feeling choked
- Feeling sick
- Low appetite or binge eating
- Shivering or shaking
- Aches and pains
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 specific places in the house
- 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 might help to speak to a professional 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.
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, that’s probably better than ‘toughing it out’.
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.
- Talk about it with someone you trust and respect.
- Consider joining a self-help group for anxiety and phobias.
- Try self-help for anxiety: there are many websites and books for this.
- Learn simple relaxation techniques, like breathing or muscle relaxation.
- Use a night light or listen to music if it helps you sleep. It won’t treat the phobia, but sleeping with a light on is nothing to be ashamed of.
- Get professional help from a doctor or therapist. They can help with systematic exposure treatment, CBT techniques to help improve the way you think about the dark, and give you practical techniques to overcome the phobia.
- Don’t watch scary movies at night.
- Take 10 minutes before bed to calm down. Meditate, do yoga, read, listen to or watch something calming and positive.
- Watch or listen to a comedy show before you go to bed. This tip worked best for me – and I’ll still do it after watching a scary movie or series late at night just to ‘reset’ my thoughts. Funny cat videos also works well!
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 sleeping, 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 helpguide.com.
Is nyctophobia a cause of adult insomnia?
In 2012, researchers at Ryerson University Sleep & Depression Laboratory in Toronto showed that many adults with insomnia might be afraid of the dark.
The study leader, Dr. Carney, said that some insomniacs they treat would sleep with a light, television or computer left on. And 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 two 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.