Once the sun sets, a new world emerges around us. What was once visible, familiar and innocuous is now buried within an unfocused shroud of darkness, shadow and uncertainty. This somewhat abstract world is darkness, and it’s a world that many people—children, teens and adults—fear. In emergency and catastrophic situations, darkness is a very real probability, one that we can’t allow ourselves to be paralyzed by if we’re to survive.
The fear of the dark is an ages-old phobia, one that primarily begins during the early years of development. Children from age 2 and upward perceive darkness as scary, with evil, death and monsters coming to the forefront of their minds when the lights go out.
This common fear usually fades as a person grows older. They no longer need to be soothed to sleep by another or enjoy the security of the warm glow of a nightlight within their room. Those who don’t shake this fear as children, however, carry this phobia into adulthood. It’s not only crippling when trying to get a good night’s sleep, it can also affect daily life by limiting a person’s activities, social interaction and entertainment to only when the sun is shining or their surroundings are flooded with the perceived safety of light.
“The fear of the dark is an ages-old phobia, one that primarily begins during the early years of development.”
“Nyctophobia” is an abnormally severe fear of the dark. It can cause numerous physical symptoms that, at times, can be severe for the person; it can also produce mental barriers. To one without this phobia, it might seem easy to overcome and somewhat childish, but for the “victim,” it’s a nonstop roller-coaster ride of emotion and body reaction when the lights go out and blackness surrounds them.
Although this might sound like a no-win situation for those affected by such fear, there are fixes to counter the phobia and allow a person to live a normal and healthy life—daytime and nighttime alike. Using both proven techniques and detailed therapy sessions, the root of the problem can be found, treated and overcome so that the darkness that once controlled them will become nothing more than an annoyance when the sun goes down.
Why the Fear?
What causes someone to fear the dark? To answer this question, it must be noted that the fear isn’t truly of the dark, itself, but what the darkness can mask or hide within its depths.
For children, the fear of monsters coming out at night or scary creatures lurking under the bed or in the closet is common. Covering themselves with blankets and keeping a flashlight on under the covers is a way to fend off the unknown and prevent anything lurking in the shadows from scaring them. Most of the time, this childlike fear disappears as a young one grows and matures, but it can stay within a person through adulthood.
Adults might experience fear of the dark as a result of exaggerated fears and/or from having been involved in a past tragic event, during which the dark or nighttime became intertwined with it in their minds. Normal fear of the dark for adults consists of their inability to know what lies ahead—basically, fear of the unknown. This, in itself, is a fear most of us share. Being unable to identify, expose and prevent threats that are shrouded in darkness are all contributing factors to that fear.
“Fear is a good thing. It keeps us ‘on our toes’ when danger signals are triggered. However, too much of a good thing can be detrimental to one’s health and well-being.”
If a devastating, life-changing event occurred at night or on the streets in near darkness (such as a mugging, car accident or physical accident), it could very well stay in the mind of an adult for years. They correlate their horrific experience with the dark. As a result, when darkness falls around them, they relive the event, which causes both physical and emotional reactions.
Finally, something as “safe” as watching a movie, albeit a horror movie, at home in a dim or dark room can invoke fear in the watcher. More often than not, viewers might stop the movie just to turn on lights around the house. In this case, the fear is not a true phobia; it’s only normal fear brought about by scary images on the screen. A truly nyctophobic person wouldn’t watch a horror film—or any film, for that matter—in the dark.
By the Numbers
In a 2017 study by Britain’s largest bed retailer, Bensons for Beds, 2,000 British adults were polled, and nearly 20 percent of all respondents stated that they sleep with a light on, while nearly the same number of people said they do bedtime checks. These included looking under their bed to make sure there were no creepy-crawlies and checking exterior, interior and closet doors to ensure nothing was going in or coming out. In addition, the United Kingdom’s Royal College of Psychiatrists suggested that one in 10 adults will experience some type of phobia or high anxiety during their lifetime, with fear of the dark being one of the most common.
Physical and Mental Symptoms
As discussed, the fear of the dark can be mild or outright extreme.
“Normal” fear of the darkness around you consists of apprehension, uncertainty and slight increases in heart rate and nervousness. If, however, the fear is a true phobia, the external physical changes to a person’s body become incredibly debilitating. Trouble breathing occurs as a person’s chest tightens, and pain can be felt throughout their chest area. Their heart might feel as if it’s beating so fast that it’s going to burst. In addition, their body can begin to tremble, tingle and/or shake uncontrollably. Flashes of heat can overcome them, and their body might become saturated in perspiration that’s followed by a cold flash as their body cools. Overall, it’s not a pleasant experience, to say the least.
Emotionally, a person with nyctophobia has to deal with an additional load of problems in their mind. Overwhelming feelings of extreme anxiety and panic can cause havoc on their mental stability. They might feel as if they’re powerless to control their fear; and that, in itself, creates a “snowball” effect that they’re losing control and possibly even going insane. They could feel as if they’re going to pass out or die, which further adds to their ongoing anxiety. Just thinking about being in the dark, even when a person is safely in the light of the day, can trigger an anxiety attack.
“ … the United Kingdom’s Royal College of Psychiatrists suggested that one in 10 adults will experience some type of phobia or high anxiety during their lifetime, with the fear of the dark being one of the most common.”
These physical and mental manifestations of the extreme fear of the dark are similar to those of other phobias and, as with other fears, they can interfere with normal life activities and personal interactions. Social gatherings at night or at “dark” locations might be off limits to those with nyctophobia. This limits a person’s social life … and even romantic options. School or work can be affected if night classes or third-shift jobs are offered to the fear-struck individual and have to be refused, thus causing problems with moving forward in both areas.
In addition, true health issues could arise from these normally disturbing, yet not permanent, symptoms. Continued stress on the body due to physical reactions to fear can cause a person to be more susceptible to strokes and heart attacks, as well as lesser-degree reactions, such as hives appearing all over a person’s body.
Correcting the Problem
One thing is for certain when a person is nyctophobic: They want to rid themselves of it so they can live a normal, healthy life. This can be accomplished in several ways, some of which a person can do on their own and some of which require a specialist in the field of treating phobias.
For “self-help,” a person first should try to calm themselves before bedtime or before they know that some form of darkness will soon envelope them. Their first objective is to eliminate caffeine and any other stimulants that would normally increase their pulse or heart rate.
Soothing music on a radio or the sound from a white-noise machine in the background helps too. However, fiddling with electronics, such as your cellphone, laptop or tablet, isn’t advisable, because a person can get sidetracked with all the information usually flowing from these devices—which, in turn, can cause anxiety from “bad” news, social media posts or unwanted e-mails.
Next, the person needs to gradually darken their room by just dimming overhead lights. Then, they should leave only one lamp on and eventually move to a small nightlight in the wall outlet. Finally, they should turn the light off completely. This desensitizing of the fear can help a person overcome it on their own.
For those with extreme fear of the dark, and when self-help methods fail, professional help is probably advisable. Treatment plans vary by individual, because triggers could be quite different among those with nyctophobia. Desensitization is also a technique professionals use. Unlike doing it on one’s own, this step-by-step technique can be supervised, adjusted and personalized to the individual, providing success where the person previously failed on their own.
In addition, one-on-one therapy with the phobia-stricken person, along with their immediate family, can aid in uncovering a possibly subconscious reason the family member would fear the dark. As discussed earlier, a traumatic event occurring in, or centralizing around, darkness might have had a long-term impact on the individual.
Finally, a therapist might be able to suggest techniques so a person could learn to truly relax, calm their body and understand what proper deep breathing is and what it can accomplish.
There’s no “magic pill” that can help someone overcome their fear of the dark. It’s a somewhat puzzling process that takes trial and error to find the correct blend of techniques, therapy and self-help that helps a person evolve from fearing the darkness around them to embracing it as a normal part of life.
Living a Normal Life
Fear is a good thing. It keeps us “on our toes” when danger signals are triggered. However, too much of a good thing can be detrimental to one’s health and well-being.
Nyctophobia takes this to the extreme. Yes, darkness can produce fear of the unknown, fear of what lies ahead and fear that a person isn’t in control of their situation. But, when one’s normal, innate fear becomes physically debilitating or mentally exhausting, it’s time to try to regain control and do what needs to be done to “see the light” and break darkness’s control over them.
These helpers can lessen your fear-induced anxiety.
FACE YOUR FEAR
This may appear easy from the outside but not to someone looking fear in the face. However, by exposing yourself to your fear in small increments, you may begin to desensitize yourself from it and work your way toward beating it entirely.
Yes, something as simple as controlled breathing can slow your heartrate and allow you to focus once again. Mentally telling yourself to breathe and calm down works wonders as your mind directs your body, not the other way around.
IMAGINE THE WORST-CASE SCENARIO
Let your mind help you, even at a time when it causes you distress during your fears. Thinking through some of the worst possible situations that may arise from your fears, you will then be able to have a “plan” in mind in case they come true. The truth is that they most likely won’t occur but having a solution ready will reduce stress and anxiety.
VISUALIZE SOMETHING NICE
If your fear puts horrible images in your mind, fight back by filling your mind with happy pictures. A cute baby, a playful pet or the best date with your sweetheart will help turn negativity into positivity. Your mind is a powerful weapon against fear; use it and win.
SEEK HELP IF NEEDED
Yes, beating it on your own is good, but never be reluctant to seek help by professionals. They have tips and techniques you may not have known about or even have access to. Set aside your ego or pride and get help to beat your phobia!
A Little on Edge or Truly Phobic?
If you have one or more of these signs of nyctophobia, you might need some help to get past your fear of the dark:
Instantly Nervous in Any Dark Area
Whether you’re caught on the streets after dark; in a room when the lights unexpectedly go out; or when a sudden power outage occurs and your body suddenly becomes agitated, nervous and showing signs of high anxiety, your fear of the dark could be more than just an annoying occurrence.
Constantly Staying Up At Night
Restlessness, tossing and turning through the night or constant insomnia are not necessarily concrete signs of a phobia of the dark but, if coupled with other nyctophobia symptoms, you may need some help to both address your fear and to get a good and satisfying night’s sleep.
Need A Light Nearby To Sleep
Does complete darkness make you feel uneasy? Is it difficult to get to sleep when no sign of light makes its way to your sight? If so and a night light, or a lamp left on during the night is a must, then perhaps your fear of the dark needs to be evaluated.
Experiencing Physical Symptoms When In The Dark
If your body becomes hot, you begin sweating and you heart feels as if it’s trying to burst from your chest when darkness settles around you, then you may have a serious phobia. Additional reactions include trembling hands and feet and weakness in your legs to the extent that you may feel as if you can’t support your weight.
Feeling Trapped With Darkness Around
Do you have the urge to “escape” from your place in the dark and try to reach safety somewhere else? This may be a sign that your fear of the dark was not created from a horror movie you just watched and could be a serious issue throughout your lifetime.
Editor’s note: A version of this article first appeared in the October, 2020 print issue of American Survival Guide.