Fear of the Dark – Nyctophobia

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There is something unnerving about the dark. We can’t see what is around us, if something is lurking out in the darkness watching us. All things that can be described as unsettling, as something to be scared of. Many of us have at some point feared what goes bump in the night, and for some that fear can still be very real. 

Nyctophobia is the irrational fear of the night or dark; a fear so intense that it interferes with one’s daily life and sleep patterns. 

This fear is typical in childhood, but it can persist to adulthood. Nyctophobia, to some researchers, is understood to occur due to the lack of visual stimuli which can be perceived as unsettling as well as just the simple thought that one cannot see their surroundings. Sounds reasonable in my opinion, but as discussed many of us are able to overcome this fear. For those who are unable to overcome and have Nyctophobia, there experience can be drastically different. 

What are the symptoms of Nyctophobia?

Like other phobias, individuals dealing with Nyctophobia can report a number of symptoms across multiple areas in their life: physical, psychological, and behavioral.  

Physical Symptoms: 

Physical symptoms experienced by individuals with Nyctophobia include trouble breathing, racing heart, trembling, sweating, and hot or cold flashes. While most would tend to avoid being put in such a situation, individuals with Nyctophobia who happen to be in a situation in which they are in a pitch-black room may find themselves having trouble breathing and feel a tightness in their chest as well as find themselves shaking from the fear

Psychological Symptoms: 

Additional symptoms can also be more psychological such as feeling anxious or in a panic. Other symptoms like losing control, consciousness, or even feeling powerless can also be felt by individuals with Nyctophobia. Continuing with the pitch-black room scenario, in addition to shaking or trembling an individual may also experience panic and or even become fully detached from the situation. Possibly due to feeling powerless because of their inability to see their surroundings, individuals can be seen to panic, detach, or even lose consciousness as a method to cope with the stressful situation. 

Behavioral Symptoms: 

Lastly, a behavioral or observable symptom to having this fear is attempting to escape any situation in which the individual may be surrounded by darkness. Some of the symptoms experienced are common in fight or flight responses such as increased heart rate and breathing or feelings of panic which can ultimately lead to a physical/behavioral reaction such as escaping the situation. 

Risk factors of Nyctophobia?

We have spoken about what is Nyctophobia and the symptoms of Nyctophobia, but you may be wondering is having the fear of the dark/night truly a bad thing if it boils down to your fight or flight response? In a way your response is just protecting you from any number of bad things in the dark, right? 

Simply, the behaviors associated with Nyctophobia or behaviors that can arise as a result to having a fear of the dark can be a problem. If an individual fears the dark and does everything in their ability to avoid the dark such as avoid sleeping, this can negatively influence one’s health. Similarly, attempts to avoid darkness during sleep through leaving lights on or having a very well lit room can also be problematic and effect one’s sleep quality. 

What are the causes of Nyctophobia?

Although there is no true cause for developing Nyctophobia, there are some life experiences that can make one more prone to developing it. 

  1. Parental or Caregiver Influences

First, having an anxious caregiver growing up can be one experience. While this may not seem likely, having an anxious caregiver can lead to a child developing into an anxious child. 

Similarly, an overprotective caregiver can also be a situation in which one can be more likely to develop Nyctophobia. With an overprotective caregiver, a child is not allowed to explore or experience the world without open curiosity. In contrast, many things are seen as something to be cautious about which for a child can also lead to the development of anxiety. 

  1. Stressful Experiences

Aside from caregivers, stressful situations can be also plausible experiences that can facilitate the development of Nyctophobia. I’m sure you can all think of at least a few situations in which you would hate to be in the dark. In the context of childhood, getting locked inside of a dark closet or room is not a happy experience and can incredibly traumatic leading to the fear of the dark. Another example more likely in adulthood is a nighttime car crash or perhaps a robbery at one’s home. Similarly to the childhood example, these situations can be incredibly stressful and perhaps even more so at night. 

  1. Genetics

Lastly, genetics is also said to play a part in the development of Nyctophobia. While there is no single gene that can make someone more likely to develop Nyctophobia, a combination of genes can set someone up to be afraid of the dark.  The key phrase there is “set up,” as characteristics or disorders such as phobias typically develop through the combination of experiences and even certain genes. 

How to cope and overcome Nyctophobia?

It may seem impossible to overcome or get a grip on one’s phobia, but there are a handful of ways one can go about coping and overcoming this phobia. 

Cognitive-Behavioral Therapy

A well-known treatment for Nyctophobia, as well as several other phobias, is Cognitive-Behavioral Therapy (CBT). This form of therapy, typically done with a licensed clinician, focuses on identifying an individual’s negative thought patterns. Identification of these thought patterns is critical for the implementation of changing behaviors and emotions. For example, an individual sees a dark room they must go into and automatically drops that task that requires them to go into the room. With CBT, the individual and their therapist may unpack the unconscious thoughts that would lead the individual towards avoiding the room and dropping the task. They may answer questions such as “where did that decision/thought come from?” or “why are you avoiding the dark room?” to then rationalize the answers and begin working on changing the negative thought patterns into positive or neutral ones. While it may sound like a quick single session for overcoming Nyctophobia, it can take some time as identifying thought patterns and problem behaviors can be challenging and can require the use of a number of techniques such as journaling, relaxation, and role-playing to then create the change of negative thought patterns to positive ones. 

Exposure Therapy

Although not always the best treatment, in some cases exposure to the triggering stimuli or situation can be effective. Typically, exposure therapy occurs in stages rather than going all in at once. These stages will follow a sort of hierarchal or progressive approach where each stage has a more intense representation of the triggering stimuli. 

Depending on the analysis made by a clinician, the first stage for one individual can be presenting a picture of a dark room or place. At any given stage, communication between the clinician and individual in imperative to work through the different thoughts occurring with exposure. Following the initial stage, if the clinician believes the individual can handle the next stage, the individual may be presented with a video of a dark room or place. Once an individual has gained confidence and is comfortable (or at least somewhat) with the current stage, they move along to the next stage and keep working towards the set “final stage” which can mean different things for everyone (i.e., standing in a dark room or standing in a dark room with another person).

Reference this article:

Practical Psychology. (2022, May). Fear of the Dark - Nyctophobia. Retrieved from https://practicalpie.com/fear-of-the-dark-nyctophobia/.

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