Nyctophobia is an age-inappropriate fear of darkness that can affect someone’s day to day activities, compel them to avoid certain circumstances, and foster the feeling of anxiety in anticipation of absence of light.
What Is Nyctophobia?
Nyctophobia, also known as lygophobia, is a mental condition defined as an acute fear of darkness and dark places. The term comes from two Greek words- nyktos (night) and phobos (fear). Experts at MindJournal describe the condition as “an extreme and irrational fear of darkness or the night which may cause stress, anxiety, tension, uncertainty and depression.” Although a fear of darkness can be a usual part of development, a strong fear of darkness in adulthood can impair daily functioning and overall well being. Research 1 shows that being in a dark environment can cause the human brain to create a “startle” response that releases certain chemicals enhancing the sufferer’s perception of anxiety.
According to the fifth edition of the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual for Mental Disorders, (DSM-5), nyctophobia is considered as a type of specific phobia disorder, a form of anxiety disorder.
While there are individuals who may still be scared of the dark, in some people this fear may have developed into a phobia. Patients with this condition undergo intense anxiety 2 at night or in dark places. On a day to day basis, such people will avoid going into dark rooms and may carry a flashlight wherever they go. Additionally, people with nyctophobia will sleep at night with lights on and get anxious when the day turns to night. Any dark place, such as a theatre, is something they will avoid under any circumstance.
As per a study, a notable amount of fear of darkness may also prevail in college students. It explains “this fear may be a classical fear seen in conditioned children that has not been outgrown or it could have evolved into more of a realistic fear of the dark that plays to people’s fear of being victimized in the dark.” The study also found that around 54% of participants from a sample study rated darkness as one of their top 5 fears.
Read More About Fear Here
Symptoms Of Nyctophobia
The symptoms associated with nyctophobia are similar to the experiences with other phobias. People suffering from this phobia undergo irrational fear that causes distress when they’re in the dark. The symptoms with each passing day may interfere with daily activities, school and work. They may even promote other health issues.
With nyctophobia, symptoms are triggered in the darkness or even speculating about circumstances where you’d find yourself in the dark. Here are some of the most common physical and emotional symptoms of the condition.
1. Physical Symptoms
The physical symptoms associated with nyctophobia includes:
- Trouble in breathing
- Racing of heartbeat rate
- Dry mouth
- Tightness or pain in the chest
- A feeling of paralysis in limbs or entire body
- Tingling sensations
- Heightened awareness or senses
- Upset stomach
- Shivering or trembling in fear
- Hot or cold flashes
2. Emotional Symptoms
The emotional symptoms associated with nyctophobia includes:
- Intense fear of imminent danger or disaster
- A sensation of feeling trapped and can’t escape
- Feeling overwhelmed with anxiety or panic
- An intense urgency to escape the darkness
- A prolonged fear of the dark
- Feeling uncontrollable or thoughts revolving around your death
- Self detachment or feeling “unreal”
- Feeling powerless over your fear
- Dodging social engagements or work activities due to fear
- Experiencing notable sleep disorder as a result of being afraid of the dark
However, it must be noted that fear of darkness does not always imply that the subject has a phobia. However, if the concern starts conflicting with your everyday life, it might be a sign of nyctophobia. Also, kids between the age of 3 to 6 years are afraid of things like ghosts, monsters and weird noises. and it certainly does not always signify a mental disorder. Make sure to consult a health expert if you notice any of these symptoms. If these symptoms reflect other ailments, it must be ruled out via a proper diagnosis by a professional. The diagnosis will make it easier for the doctor to formulate a treatment plan that’s best for you.
Causes Of Nyctophobia
Some common factors resulting in the development of nyctophobia in individuals, especially in children, are:
1. Disturbing Experiences
Any kind of distressing incident associated with darkness, leaving a deep impact on the brain, can be a credible reason for the development of nyctophobia in people, especially children. For example, punishing a child on a regular basis by locking him/her in a dark room may trigger the fear of darkness. Likewise, other traumatic incidents in the dark or during the nighttime, such as abuse, domestic violence or accidents may also cause nyctophobia. Such experiences leave the sufferer with bad memories and insights about the danger connected with night and darkness.
A 2013 study 3 on the fear of darkness among adults, linked to poor sleeping habits, found that such a phobia can be caused by any traumatic event during childhood. The researchers discovered that 68% of participants in the study reported it as a common childhood fear and 46% (who are poor sleepers as well) reported suffering from adult fear of darkness.
2. Past Mental Health Weakness
Additionally, a persistent mental health issue can also trigger the phobia in a person. If the patient has a history of previous mental disorders such as depression, he/she may develop this condition due to weakened mental energy. Simple incidents such as the occurrence of a sudden blackout or staying in a dark room alone can make the person nyctophobic. A 2017 study 4 shows that at the neurobiological level, notable advances were made in recognizing fear circuits and mechanisms as dysfunctions in these circuits/mechanisms can lead to chronic psychiatric post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) and other sorts of phobias, including particular phobias, are among the disorders.
3. Evolutionary Factors
Nyctophobia is connected with the development of mankind. In the early ages, people used to go hunting in the dark and encounter wild beasts. Darkness is associated with evil activities, monsters and paranormal beings. It also makes darkness the main theme of horror movies. Thus, nyctophobia can also be the result of acquired behavior that has passed down with the evolution of humans in itself.
A study says that darkness also intensifies a person’s other senses. When a person is unable to see the source of noise or movement, chances are high that they will experience extreme fear when they hear or sense something. According to a study, one 2012 U.K. survey had revealed that nearly 40% of participants said they were scared to walk around the house in the dark. In fact, 10% said that they would not even consider getting out of bed to use the bathroom in the middle of the night.
Diagnosis Of Nyctophobia
To diagnose a person with nyctophobia, the patient must consult a doctor if he/she is suffering from symptoms such as:
- Trouble in sleeping
- Feeling unusually anxious or distressed in the dark
- Have other reasons to believe that he/she may have the disorder
- Feeling the fear is excessive and even unreasonable
- Avoiding specific circumstances because of his/her anxiousness
- Suffering from these sensations for six months or longer
The doctor may also ask questions to garner information about the patient’s psychological and social history.The doctor may also use the diagnostic guidelines from the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, Fifth Edition (DSM-5) on specific phobias to make a formal diagnosis based on the following criteria –
- An excessive or illogical fear that is triggered by the presence or perception of a certain object or scenario (in this case darkness).
- The exposure to the feared item or the situation almost always gives rise to an immediate anxiousness, which may further take the form of a panic attack. In children, the stress may be signified by crying, tantrums, freezing, or clinging.
- The patient understands and realizes that the anxiety is unnecessary or out of balance when compared to the actual threat posed. In children, however, this trait may be absent.
- The phobic situation(s) is evaded or experienced with severe anxiety and distress.
- The act of avoidance, worried anticipation, or trouble through the dreaded situation(s) conflicts prominently with day to day routine, work, school, functioning, or social activities and relationships.
- The fear is persistent and typically continues for at least six months.
- The fear, panic attacks, or avoidance connected with the specific object or situation are not considered as any other mental disorder, such as Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder, Separation Anxiety Disorder (e.g., avoidance of school), Social Phobia, Posttraumatic Stress Disorder, Panic Disorder, etc.
Read More About Phobia Here
Treatment Of Nyctophobia
The goal of treatment is to question the terrifying beliefs associated with the dark, thereby replacing negative self-talk with more positive messages. A combination of diverse therapies and medication can help to control nyctophobia. Thus, here are the available treatment options to manage nyctophobia.
1. Therapeutic Treatment
The different types of therapies to treat nyctophobia are:
A. Exposure Therapy
Exposure therapy is considered as one of the most effective therapies to treat nyctophobia. During the therapy session, the person is compelled to confront the darkness which further makes it clear as to how and why the person reacts. Through this treatment, the therapist will explain the various ways to relax such as breathing control, meditation and mind visualizations to reduce the fear. Through frequent exposures, the person develops a tolerance against fear and distress.
According to a study, since nyctophobia is most common in children, they must go through exposure therapy that involves gradual exposure to the dark. At the initial stages of the therapy, the child must be exposed to a dark room during the daytime and then slowly proceed to a dark room during the night time. Additionally, initially the exposure can be done in presence of the parents while gradually moving them further from the child.
B. Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT)
CBT is defined as a psycho-social intervention that strives to enhance one’s mental health. It is a modality that is usually used to attend people suffering from anxiety disorders such as generalized anxiety disorder and OCD. A person with nyctophobia may also benefit from CBT as well. It will enable the therapist to understand as to why the subject thinks and behaves the way he/she does in association with their irrational fears.
The therapist counsels the person and enables him/her to develop positive thoughts over the negative ones. The therapist also supervises appropriate behavior routines that can support in the completion of night tasks and tolerate darkness. CBT will also help the subject to step back and analyze his/her fears more deeply than he/she would normally do. Besides learning to be more careful in understanding one’s specific fear, someone with nyctophobia will also learn multiple ways to cope with anxiety caused by the condition.
‘In psychology, the therapy methods commonly used to cope with Nyctophobia is Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT)”, says a study. The study also mentions that the CBT approach motivates patients to become accustomed to confronting their fears by contributing positive suggestions of their fears until they no longer feel afraid. The process of changing the outlook on the cognitive aspect becomes the early success key to treat Nyctophobia followed by behavioral alteration as a sign of cognitive change becoming the criterion for this therapy’s effectiveness
Read More About Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT) Here
C. Dialectical Behavior Therapy (DBT)
DBT is yet another effective form of treatment for people struggling with fears, including nyctophobia. This therapy is useful to treat patients suffering from a borderline personality disorder. However, it is equally beneficial for people with nyctophobia. It is because the therapy is defined by the numerous amount of coping skills that a subject can learn from a DBT group. Such groups typically last for 6 months and can consist of 2 people or more people, depending on how many join the group.
D. Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction (MBSR)
MBSR is an 8-week evidence-based treatment that offers profane and absolute mindfulness training to help people suffering from anxiety, stress, depression, and other sorts of mental distress. MBSR may help someone suffering from nyctophobia to a certain degree via mindfulness meditation, a proven method for anxious people. Because it is an organised programme, a person with nyctophobia can expect to learn a variety of skills that will assist them in reducing their fear intense stress associated with their specific phobia.
According to a study, mindfulness is a skill that enables people to feel less uncomfortable with events than they really are. The goal of mindfulness is not to change the state of consciousness, but foster a self-observation state without evaluating and considering the current reality. MBSR is a form of stress reduction and relaxation training known as the most effective regulators of anxiety. Stress reduction based on mindfulness is a behavioral intervention based on self-consideration and self-focus, and its practices are done with any concentration on thoughts, feelings, and perceptions. MBSR is a combination of relaxation and mindfulness. Studies show that MBSR techniques are effective in reducing anxiety disorders along with improving psychological, physical, and emotional well-being.
Hypnotherapy can be a beneficial tool for nyctophobia, especially if trauma from the past is involved. A trained and certified hypnotherapist can use relaxation and regression methods to find the evidence behind the causes of your phobia. The right suggestion from the therapist may help relieve your symptoms.
Read More About Hypnosis Here
Psychoanalysis may help you remember or identify the various incidents in your past that may be the key reason for your phobia for the dark. The more you learn about your think and reaction patterns, the better position you happen to be in to make changes.
G. Phobia Support Groups
It becomes easier to cope up with a phobia when a subject finds out that he/she is not alone in this journey. The subject can join a phobia support group, thereby gaining hope and empowerment by listening to the stories of ups and downs of other people. Their journey to recovery can become inspirational to the subject, thereby giving him/her the strength to battle their fears.
H. Relaxation Techniques
Relaxation techniques consist of activities like deep breathing and workout. It can support people to handle the anxiety, physical signs and symptoms associated with their fears. According to a study, relaxation training helps in reducing anxiety. State and trait anxiety are both influenced by training with each relaxation session decreasing state anxiety and surviving practice of relaxation techniques may also enhance trait anxiety in the middle-long term. There is no significant difference between the effects of group training and individual training. The efficacy of the treatment increases with the duration of the protocol and home practice.
The different types of relaxation techniques that can be recommended for this condition are:
- Autogenic Relaxation – Autogenic relaxation technique uses both visual imagery and body awareness to reduce stress. Here, a person repeats words or suggestions in his/her mind that may foster relaxation and reduce muscle tension.
- Progressive Muscle Relaxation – In this relaxation technique, the person focuses on slowly tensing and then relaxing each muscle group.
- Visualization – A person might use this relaxing technique to create mental images of a tranquil, calming place or circumstance. To relax while practising visualisation, the user should use as many senses as possible, such as scent, sight, sound, and touch.
Other relaxation techniques may include:
- Deep breathing
- Tai chi
- Music and art therapy
2. Physical Activities
Regular physical activity and exercise sessions have proved to be extremely beneficial for people suffering from anxiety disorders, including nyctophobia. Precisely, cardiovascular exercise can help to relieve one’s stress to a large extent. While weight-resistance training too might help with the same, aerobic exercise is more effective at releasing those feel-good chemicals in the brain, such as endorphins.
There are many different types of aerobic exercises to reduce the symptoms of nyctophobia. One can indulge in:
Additionally, playing sports such as tennis, soccer, basketball, and racquetball may also help in reducing the symptoms.
Only in severe cases nyctophobia, medicines are used such as anti-anxiety and anti-depressant drugs reduce the symptoms. However, they should be taken only under the consultation of a doctor.
Read More About Antidepressants Here
How To Cope With Nyctophobia?
A person can himself/herself cope with the fear of darkness with some home remedies along with professional treatment. Some self-help strategies for treating nyctophobia at home include:
- Coming up with a phrase that will help you cope up with the condition. Make a phrase for yourself like “It is dark, but I am safe,” and repeat the same to make yourself feel less anxious.
- Practice deep breathing workouts or yoga to slow down your thoughts and promote sound sleep. According to a study, a wide range of yoga practices suggest that they can reduce the impact of excessive stress responses and may be helpful for both anxiety and depression. By reducing recognized stress and anxiety, yoga appears to change stress response systems. This, in turn, lowers physiological arousal, lowering heart rate, blood pressure, and breathing.
- Think of a positive image in the dark, like imagining your pet or a place that binds good memories. Such positive images can help you to overcome the negative thoughts and cope up with the dark better.
- Practice progressive muscle relaxation which involves lying or sitting on a platform while imagining each part of your body, thereby feeling a sensation of relaxation.
Such small changes and initiatives at home can help teach the body to relax and reduce tension when surrounded by darkness.
Nyctophobia Is Manageable With Proper Treatment
Nyctophobia can result in adverse effects if it is not treated right and in time. Hence, make sure to consult a doctor once the symptoms start showing up. Additionally, suffering fear of darkness has nothing to do with your bravery or independence as an adult. The condition can develop in anyone, irrespective of time, age and environment. However, when one seeks professional help in the right time, the symptoms reduce and helps one to return to his/her sound lifestyle.
Nyctophobia At A Glance
- Nyctophobia, also known as lygophobia, is a mental condition defined as an acute fear of darkness and dark places.
- While there are individuals who may still be scared of the dark, in some people this fear may have developed into a phobia.
- Patients with this condition undergo intense anxiety at night or in dark places.
- The goal of treatment is to question the terrifying beliefs associated with the dark, thereby replacing negative self-talk with more positive messages.
- Nyctophobia can result in adverse effects if it is not treated right and in time.
- The condition can develop in anyone, irrespective of time, age and environment.
- Levos, J., & Lowery Zacchilli, T. (2015). Nyctophobia: From imagined to realistic fears of the dark. Psi Chi Journal of Psychological Research, 20(2), 102-110. https://doi.org/10.24839/2164-8204.jn20.2.102
- Coping with ANXIETY AND PHOBIAS. IIS Windows Server. https://hrccatalog.hrrh.on.ca/InmagicGenie/DocumentFolder/copinganxietyphobias.pdf
- Carney, C. E., Moss, T. G., Atwood, M. E., Crowe, B. M., & Andrews, A. J. (2013). Are poor sleepers afraid of the dark? A preliminary investigation. Journal of Experimental Psychopathology, 5(1), 2-13. https://doi.org/10.5127/jep.032312
- Garcia R. (2017). Neurobiology of fear and specific phobias. Learning & memory (Cold Spring Harbor, N.Y.), 24(9), 462–471. https://doi.org/10.1101/lm.044115.116