Fear of the dark: Everything to know about nyctophobia

Nyctophobia or fear of the dark may be common in children, but adults can also have it. We tell you everything about nyctophobia.
A woman who has a fear of the dark
Even adults can have a fear of the dark! Image courtesy: Freepik
Natalia Ningthoujam Published: 27 Jun 2024, 03:45 pm IST
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It is natural for people to fear certain things, age notwithstanding. Nyctophobia or fear of the dark is usually associated with children as kids tend to be scared of the dark due to their heightened imagination. But adults’ fear of the dark or nyctophobia may be linked to a traumatic event that they experienced as a child or in a later stage of their life. It can be so intense that it may even negatively impact daily life. They may have problem in sleeping or have panic attacks. While creating a comfortable sleep environment is essential, consulting a therapist regarding the fear of the dark and its impact is a must. There are different therapies that can help people with nyctophobia. Read on to know more about nyctophobia and what to do if you have a fear of the dark.

What is nyctophobia?

Nyctophobia, often referred to as the fear of the dark, is a common phobia that affects people of all ages but is notably more prevalent among children. During a 2022 research, it was found that the incidence of nighttime fear in children aged between 7 and 9 is 84.7 percent. The causes of children’s nighttime fear include a fear of environmental threats, such as darkness, as per the research published in the Children journal.

A girl who has fear of the dark
Children are generally scared of darkness. Image courtesy: Shutterstock

Fear of the dark is a normal part of childhood development, says psychiatrist Dr Rahul Rai Kakkar. Children’s imaginations are highly active, and their ability to distinguish between reality and fantasy is still developing. So, dark environments can become fertile ground for their fears. Most children outgrow this fear as they grow up and learn to cope with the unknown. But in some cases, the fear may persist into adulthood.

What are the symptoms of nyctophobia?

The symptoms of nyctophobia can vary widely among individuals, but generally include:

  • Intense panic attacks, which can occur at the mere thought of darkness or when in a dark environment.
  • Sweating
  • Shaking
  • Rapid heartbeat
  • Shortness of breath
  • A feeling of tightness in the chest
  • People may go to great lengths to avoid dark places, such as sleeping with lights on or avoiding certain activities that involve darkness.
  • Difficulty falling asleep
  • Frequent awakenings
  • Having nightmares

What are the causes of nyctophobia?

The causes of this phobia can include:

1. Traumatic experiences

If a person experiences or witnesses a traumatic event in the dark, it can lead to the development of this phobia, says the expert. A burglary or an assault in the dark can traumatise a child or an adult.

2. Learned behaviour

Children may develop a fear of the dark by observing and mimicking the fears and anxieties of their parents or other influential people in their life. And if treatment is not offered during that time, they may continue to have this phobia even in adulthood.

3. Imagination and overthinking

Children tend to have vivid imaginations. They have an inability to distinguish between reality and fantasy, so this can make the dark seem more frightening to them, says Dr Kakkar.

4. Underlying anxiety disorders

Some people have generalised anxiety disorder, which is a mental health condition causing fear, or have other anxiety-related conditions. Such people may be more prone to developing phobias, including nyctophobia, shares the expert.

How to diagnose nyctophobia?

Diagnosing nyctophobia involves a thorough assessment by a mental health professional, and the process generally includes –

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  • Clinical interviews that help to understand the person’s history, the onset of symptoms, and the severity of the fear.
  • Tools such as the Fear Survey Schedule for Children (FSSC) or the specific phobia section of the Anxiety Disorders Interview Schedule (ADIS) can be used to assess the intensity and impact of the phobia.
  • Observing the individual’s reactions to darkness or dark environments in a controlled setting can provide insights into the severity of the phobia.

How to treat nyctophobia?

Experts may use various options for treatment of nyctophobia. These may include:

1. Cognitive-Behavioral Therapy (CBT)

CBT is the most effective treatment for phobias, says the expert. It involves helping the person identify and challenge irrational thoughts related to darkness and gradually exposing them to dark environments in a controlled and safe manner.

A woman who has fear of the dark
Therapies can help people with nyctophobia. Image Courtesy: Freepik

2. Exposure Therapy

A form of CBT, the exposure therapy involves the gradual and repeated exposure of the affected person to darkness. It is done to desensitise the individual and reduce fear over time.

3. Medication

In severe cases, medications such as anti-anxiety drugs or antidepressants may be prescribed to manage the symptoms of nyctophobia. These are typically used in conjunction with therapy, says the expert.

4. Relaxation techniques

Techniques such as deep breathing, progressive muscle relaxation, and mindfulness can help manage symptoms of anxiety. Once you are able to manage them, you will be able to take care of your fear of the dark.

5. Play Therapy

For children, play therapy can be an effective way to express their fears and develop coping mechanisms in a non-threatening environment. It can help them play out their anxieties. This can help them process and understand the scary feelings and overcome them.

How to manage nyctophobia?

Along with therapies, you need to manage nyctophobia in the following ways –

  • Use nightlights, and keep a consistent bedtime routine to reduce anxiety related to darkness.
  • Slowly increase exposure to darkness in a controlled manner to help desensitise fear. For example, start with a dimly lit room and gradually reduce the light.
  • Positive affirmations can help manage anxiety.
  • Seek the support of your family, friends and loved ones who can provide encouragement and reduce feelings of isolation.
  • Regular physical activity can help reduce overall anxiety levels and improve your sleep quality as well.

Nyctophobia or fear of the dark is common among children, but even adults may have it. It may be connected to a traumatic experience or an anxiety disorder. So, reach out to a therapist to treat it.

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About the Author

Natalia Ningthoujam has written on various subjects - from music to films and fashion to lifestyle - as a journalist in her career that started in 2010. After getting stories from the crime scene, police headquarters, and conducting interviews with celebrities, she is now writing on health and wellness which has become her focus area. ...Read More

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