Nyctophobia is an irrational or extreme fear of the dark. People with nyctophobia experience significant anxiety, tension, and feelings of uncertainty concerning the dark.
If nyctophobia prevents a person from getting sufficient sleep or interrupts their everyday activities, it is advisable that they contact a healthcare professional about potential treatments. Over time, a person can work to reduce their fear of the dark.
Keep reading to learn more about nyctophobia, including the symptoms and causes, as well as how to overcome it.
The term comes from two Greek words: nyktos (night) and phobos (fear).
Scientists have found that darkness creates a “startle” response in the brain, which causes it to release chemicals that heighten a person’s perception of anxiety.
While some people can quieten this increased anxiety, others cannot. Instead, they magnify it, creating an extreme level of fear. It is common for children to have a fear of the dark, but this usually subsides as a person gets older.
When a person has nyctophobia, their fear of the dark can become debilitating, and they may refuse to go out at night. They may even avoid going to movie theaters, other people’s homes, or any areas where they may experience darkness due to the anxiety that this creates.
It may be difficult to distinguish between a slight apprehension toward the dark and a serious phobia. Some of the symptoms of a clinically significant fear of the dark include:
- experiencing heightened reactions to the dark, such as panic or anxiety attacks
- a long lasting fear of the dark
- avoiding engaging in social or work activities due to this fear
- significant sleep impairment as a result of being afraid of the dark
A small study of more than 100 participants, which featured in the Journal of Experimental Psychology, found that people who reported poor sleep were often uncomfortable in the dark and more likely to become startled while sleeping in the dark. Some people with nyctophobia may experience higher anxiety around bedtime when they know that night and the darkness are coming.
In children, a fear of the dark also often occurs alongside separation anxiety disorder. This condition causes a child to fear separating from a parent or caregiver.
In addition to the known brain changes that occur in the absence of a light stimulus and increase anxiety, fear of the dark may have a connection to a fear of violence or victimization. According to an article in the Psi Chi Journal of Psychological Research, people often report stronger feelings of fear when they encounter dark or shadowy spaces. When a person cannot see due to darkness, they commonly begin to imagine or fear threats awaiting them.
Experts believe that darkness also heightens a person’s other senses. When a person cannot see the source of a noise or movement, they are more likely to experience extreme fear when they hear or sense something.
Sometimes, a person may not know why the dark affects them so significantly. For some people, nyctophobia is a learned or worsening behavior, whereas, for others, it has been present for as long as they can remember.
Treatment for those who experience extreme distress and anxiety due to nyctophobia is likely to consist of a combination of home remedies and professional help.
Some strategies for treating nyctophobia at home include:
- Identifying a coping phrase to reduce anxiety: “It is dark, but I am safe,” could be an example. Repeating the phrase may make a person feel less anxious.
- Practicing deep breathing exercises to slow thoughts and promote sleep: Examples include being aware of the air entering and leaving the nose and focusing on slow, deep breathing.
- Focusing on a positive image in the dark: An example could be a beloved pet or a place that the person likes to visit. These positive images can help a person overcome their negative feelings toward the dark.
- Practicing progressive muscle relaxation: This technique involves lying or sitting and imagining each part of the body starting to relax in turn.
Taking these steps can help teach the body to relax and reduce anxiety when a person has to face the dark. However, if a person with nyctophobia finds these strategies ineffective, they may wish to see a mental health professional.
The treatment options for nyctophobia include:
Cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT)
This technique involves discussing the disorder and helping a person understand how darkness affects the brain. A mental health professional will then help the person identify the specific thoughts that cause them significant anxiety relating to the dark and explain how they can adjust these thoughts with time.
Some mental health professionals will recommend exposure therapy, in which a person will experience the dark for periods of increasing duration. Ideally, this exposure will “desensitize” the individual so that they experience progressively less anxiety each time they are in the dark.
Doctors may also prescribe medications for the temporary treatment of anxiety or to promote sleep if an individual experiences significant exhaustion as a result of nyctophobia. However, these medications do not treat the underlying phobia or the cause of it. To address the cause, a person is likely to need therapy.
Nyctophobia can be a debilitating phobia for some people and an extreme source of anxiety for others. Although doctors consider a fear of the dark to be a normal part of child development, most adults do not have this fear to a significant degree.
If nyctophobia keeps a person from their everyday activities or affects their sleep, they should talk to their doctor about potential treatments. Over time, a person can work to reduce their fear of the dark.