Everyone is afraid of something and recognising what yours is, is the first step in overcoming it. So, if you have a fear of the dark and can only sleep with a light on, then the below may help you rest better at night.
We’ve been chatting with Graham W Price, a BABCP accredited Chartered Psychologist and member of the British Psychological Society (BPS), to learn more about this kind of phobia, what causes a fear of the dark, and how you can tackle it.
What is Nyctophobia?
The term ‘achluophobia’ is the formal name of a fear of darkness, whereas ‘nyctophobia’ relates to a sudden, extreme fear of the dark in adults.
As Price told us:
“Nyctophobia is an irrational fear of the dark. Being fearful of the dark is common among young children, so wouldn’t normally be described as a phobia. It’s referred to as a phobia if it persists into adulthood, or if it’s severe.”
Known as an ‘age-inappropriate fear’, nyctophobia can come on abruptly and cause the sufferer to experience anxiety and change their behaviours or environment as a result. Many sufferers do not go out at night, sleep with a night light and experience panic-like symptoms when in dim areas. This fear is often described as excessive and irrational and impacts the day-to-day life of the sufferer.
Although triggered by the darkness, nyctophobia is not necessarily about the lack of light but rather the fear of the unknown i.e. dangers hidden by the darkness and a feeling of a lack of security. This, therefore, is often heightened when a sufferer is alone.
“The symptoms are, as with any other phobia, a panicky feeling, rapid heartbeat, accentuated breathing, shortness of breath, feeling faint, or chest pains. These are all symptoms generated by the release of adrenaline into the bloodstream.“
What Causes a Fear of Darkness in Adults?
Believe it or not, our imaginations have a huge influence. If you have watched a scary or violent television show or film before bed, this can conjure an irrational fear which is exasperated by the darkness. Another key ingredient is our pasts, as Price explained:
“Nyctophobia in adults can be caused by a carry-over from childhood, perhaps because of something genuinely fearful happening in the dark. It can be generated in adults for a similar reason, or it can simply arise in adults without any particular trigger. This is then a more serious complaint, needing treatment from a professional.”
There has been some research which suggests nyctophobia may be associated with sleep disorders like insomnia too. A Canadian study of college students found that nearly half of those suffering from insomnia also had a fear of the dark. Those who suffered from the most sleep disturbances were the most easily startled by noises whilst in the dark.
Furthermore, a study by the University of Pecs in Hungary found that night-time fears were mostly non-specific. But, if a fear of the dark had to be explained, it would be due to an unknown ‘human threat’. The second most common reasoning given being the threat of real-life or imaginary creatures (perhaps linked to television and film, as previously stated).
How to Overcome a Fear of the Dark
For children, battling a fear of the dark is a little easier than for adults. Some may say “I can only sleep with the light on”, and a night-light is a temporary fix until they grow out of this. Others simply reflect their caregiver’s behaviours, so if you show you are not afraid of the dark, they may feel a little more confident.
You could even get them excited to go to bed by purchasing them a brand-new big kid bed and matching single bed mattress, or introduce a reward-led chart to encourage them to stay in bed despite their fears.
As adults, we tend to be more stuck in our ways, so shaking a fear is a little more difficult… but not impossible. If you have nyctophobia, treatment can take various forms, such as:
Exposure therapy –spending more time in dark rooms in small, incremental doses to help desensitise.
Talk therapy –simply sharing fears and discussing the rationale behind them.
Relaxation techniques –deep breathing, meditation, or yoga.
Cognitive behaviour therapy –the process of identifying negative feelings and replacing them with more positive ones.
A bedroom makeover –making the sleep space pleasant and inviting with warm and inviting décor, and a comfortable bed.
“Treatment of nyctophobia is most commonly via cognitive behaviour therapy,” said Price.
“This combines exposure to the dark, with cognitive changes resulting from rationalising thoughts during exposure, and is something I offer as part of my free webinars at www.positive-mind-training.com”
Do You Have Any Tips for Overcoming a Fear of the Dark?