What Is Fear of Darkness?

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Fear of the dark is also called nyctophobia. It's a type of specific phobia. Having nyctophobia means you have an irrational and extreme fear of the dark. If left untreated, a fear of the dark can impact your sleep and quality of life.

It's common to be afraid of the dark at some point in your childhood, but for a number of adults, these feelings can persist and affect their functional ability.

This article will explain the symptoms and causes of nyctophobia and offer insight on ways to cope.

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Definition

When a person has an extreme fear of darkness it's called nyctophobia. This fear can be debilitating and interfere with their daily life. Being afraid of the dark can be normal, but when it's irrational or disproportionate, it becomes a phobia.

A person with nyctophobia might stay away from situations in which there will be darkness—like camping overnight or a trip to the movies—to avoid intense feelings of anxiety.

Research has determined that when people fear the dark, it's because they can’t see their surroundings. Darkness causes a "startle response" in the brain, which increases anxiety.

Symptoms

The symptoms of nyctophobia are similar to the symptoms of other specific phobias. A specific phobia is an intense and persistent fear of a specific object, person, or situation that's proportionally greater than the actual threat.

If left untreated, a specific phobia can hinder a person's ability to function.

Symptoms can show up physically and/or emotionally. With nyctophobia, symptoms can occur when you're in the dark or anticipate being in the dark. Symptoms include:

Symptoms of Nyctophobia

  • Shaking, trembling, or tingling sensations
  • Fear of going out at night
  • Extreme nervousness of the thought of being in the dark
  • Light-headedness or dizziness
  • The need to have a light on in the dark and/or while you sleep
  • Upset stomach
  • Hot or cold flashes
  • Overwhelming feelings of panic
  • Sweating
  • Trouble breathing
  • Racing heart rate


Diagnosis

A diagnosis of a phobia starts with a conversation with your primary healthcare provider. They can refer you to a licensed mental health professional.

During your appointment, you'll typically fill out intake forms that include your health history. Afterward, you'll have a conversation with a therapist. From there they will share their diagnosis.

Nyctophobia isn't a diagnosis in and of itself. It's categorized as a specific phobia, which does have an official diagnosis.

Based on the criteria outlined in the fifth edition of the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM-5), people with a specific phobia:

  • Experience intense, excessive, and persistent fear of a specific object or situation
  • Have feelings of anxiety, fear, or panic when they encounter the source of their fear
  • Have a fear that is out of proportion to the actual risk posed by the object or situation
  • Avoid the feared object or situation, or experience intense anxiety or discomfort when they encounter it
  • Experience fear, anxiety, or avoidance that causes significant distress (it bothers them that they have the fear) or significant interference in their day-to-day life, such as difficulty performing important tasks at work, meeting new friends, attending classes, or interacting with others
  • Have persistent fear, anxiety, or avoidance (usually lasting at least six months)
  • Experience fear, panic, or avoidance that is not better explained by another disorder or cause

Causes

A specific phobia can be caused by a number of factors, including:

  • Direct learning experiences: A traumatic experience with the feared object or situation, such as being left in the dark under dangerous circumstances
  • Observational learning experiences: Seeing others experience the feared object or situation, or living with the phobia, such as seeing another person get hurt in the dark or growing up in a household in which an adult of significance such as a parent had a fear of the dark
  • Informational learning: Learning about the source of fear through avenues like the news, books, or television, where darkness is often portrayed as more dangerous and suspicious than it is

Treatment

There are treatment options for people who have nyctophobia. The goal is to reduce symptoms or fully resolve them.

How Is Nyctophobia Treated?

  • Talk therapy: Also called psychotherapy, speaking with a trained therapist
  • Mindfulness techniques: Being intensely observant of your current surroundings
  • Cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT): A common type of talk therapy that helps identify and change destructive thought patterns
  • Incremental exposure to the dark: Exposing the patient to the source of their anxiety in a safe environment
  • Relaxation activities: Relieving stress through such techniques as yoga, deep breathing, and meditation

In some cases, antianxiety medication may be prescribed if your healthcare provider thinks it's right for you.

Coping

Coping with a phobia can be aided by your healthcare professional. Know that you're not alone. Research has shown that the lifetime prevalence of specific phobias is 3%–15% worldwide.

You might consider joining a support group to connect and share stories with people who understand what you're feeling.

It's also important to keep up with your therapy appointments and commit to your healing. This includes staying active, eating well, and practicing self-care. People who exercise regularly may become less sensitive to the physical feelings of a panic attack, which can reduce fear.

Can Nyctophobia Go Away?

With consistency and the help of your healthcare provider, you'll be able to manage your symptoms and get back to your life.

Summary

Fear of the dark is also called nyctophobia. This is a type of specific phobia. When a person has a specific phobia, it means they have an irrational and persistent fear of a certain object, person, or situation.

If you think you might have nyctophobia, have a conversation with your primary healthcare provider. They can refer you to a mental health professional.

Treatment includes talk therapy, relaxation techniques, and exposure therapy, to name a few. Antianxiety medication may be prescribed if your healthcare provider thinks it's right for you.

A Word From Verywell

If you have a phobia of any type, know that you're not alone. The good news is there is hope. Your doctor and licensed mental health professional can help you through the process. In addition, there are support groups you can join.

If you have nyctophobia or any type of specific phobia, contact your healthcare provider, who can refer you to the right mental health professional and provide resources. It's important to take your time, be gentle with yourself, and trust the journey.

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7 Sources
Verywell Health uses only high-quality sources, including peer-reviewed studies, to support the facts within our articles. Read our editorial process to learn more about how we fact-check and keep our content accurate, reliable, and trustworthy.
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