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Fear of the dark is a common childhood experience. The good news is, most people grow out of it.
But an extreme fear of the dark that makes it hard for a person to function is actually a type of specific phobia: a diagnosable condition known as nyctophobia. Insomnia (an inability to fall or stay asleep) and nyctophobia tend to go hand-in-hand, although researchers don’t fully understand the relationship yet.
While most grow out of this fear, some do not. Here’s more on what nyctophobia is, symptoms, and treatment options to help overcome it.
What is nyctophobia?
Nyctophobia is a severe fear of night or darkness. It’s sometimes referred to as achluophobia, lygophobia, or scotophobia.
Around one third of all kids are afraid of the dark at some point, and most grow out of it. By adulthood only about 3.5% experience this fear, but it’s not technically considered nyctophobia unless it lasts for more than six months and causes an extreme fear response.
Symptoms of nyctophobia
Phobias all have the same core symptom––an excessive reaction to fear.
Each phobia is characterized by its own fear. For people with nyctophobia, it’s the dark. Of course, there are realistic fears of the dark; the thing that sets it apart is the extent of the reaction. For example, kids with an actual phobia may want to go to camp or sleepovers but are unable to because of their fear.
Nyctophobia also goes hand-in-hand with anxiety. An extreme fear of the dark may be stoked by worries about what may happen, such as a burglary or fire. And it may not surprise you to learn that many people with nyctophobia also experience insomnia (Milosevic, 2015).
Nyctophobia and insomnia
Many kids with nyctophobia have anxiety that keeps them up at night. Some do better with a small, unobtrusive night light, while others may want lights bright enough to interfere with sleep.
There may also be a connection between nyctophobia and insomnia in adults, but little research has been done on it. One study found that poor sleepers reported feeling more uncomfortable in the dark and were more easily startled than good sleepers (Carney, 2013).
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Treatment for nyctophobia
Specific phobias like nyctophobia are commonly treated with exposure therapy. During this type of psychotherapy, someone with a phobia is gradually and repeatedly introduced to the thing they fear until it no longer triggers a response.
The exposure can be real or imagined, and some practitioners use virtual reality techniques for patients (Singh, 2016). One virtual reality simulation developed by researchers takes place in a forest at nighttime, using varying levels of light to help people face their fear of the dark (Paulus, 2019).
Many practitioners combine exposure and cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT), a technique that aims to change unhealthy thought patterns that contribute to the anxiety that can arise around conditions like nyctophobia.
For example, if every time you’re in a dark room you imagine some kind of threat to your life, practicing CBT with a trained specialist may be able to reprogram those thought patterns and alleviate the anxiety.
They also teach patients relaxation techniques, like deep breathing exercises, and ways to cope with or reframe anxiety. Patients then apply these new skills while exposed to the source of their fear. As they progress, things or situations that cause much greater anxiety are introduced until a person no longer experiences the same level of fear or anxiety.
Your therapist may consider medication along with therapy as a treatment option if your phobia causes symptoms like panic attacks.
Beta-blockers and benzodiazepines are commonly used because of their ability to ease panic symptoms like increased heart rate. These drugs may be helpful during therapy to help someone face their fears, but they’re not right for everyone (NIH, 2016). Also, medications are typically used for short-term treatment but not long-term.
Exposure therapy: a proven therapy for anxiety and PTSD
Your healthcare provider will decide whether or not to use medication based on your unique situation. Seeking help for your phobia may seem daunting, but it’s worthwhile.
Phobias left untreated are associated with other mental health issues, such as anxiety and substance abuse. Addressing your phobia early may have positive long-term benefits for your mental health (Eaton, 2018).
- 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. doi:10.5127/jep.032312. Retrieved from https://journals.sagepub.com/doi/abs/10.5127/jep.032312
- Eaton, W. W., Bienvenu, O. J., & Miloyan, B. (2018). Specific phobias. The Lancet Psychiatry, 5(8), 678–686. doi:10.1016/s2215-0366(18)30169-x. Retrieved from https://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/abs/pii/S221503661830169X
- Milosevic, I. & McCabe, R. (2015). Nyctophobia (Fear of the Dark). In Phobias: the Psychology of Irrational Fear, 240–241. Retrieved from https://books.google.com/books?hl=en&lr=&id=1BfYBgAAQBAJ&oi=fnd&pg=PA240&dq=fear+of+the+dark&ots=QCrXQgAQcA&sig=TrSXaY85s6XLuYOuWGSS_BCXxkk#v=onepage&q=fear%20of%20the%20dark&f=false
- National Institute of Mental Health (NIH). (2016). Panic disorder: when fear overwhelms. Retrieved from https://www.nimh.nih.gov/health/publications/panic-disorder-when-fear-overwhelms
- Paulus, E., Yusuf, F. P., Suryani, M., & Suryana, I. (2019). Development and Evaluation on Night Forest Virtual Reality as Innovative Nyctophobia Treatment. Journal of Physics: Conference Series. doi:10.1088/1742-6596/1235/1/012003. Retrieved from https://iopscience.iop.org/article/10.1088/1742-6596/1235/1/012003/meta
- Samra, C.K. & Abdijadid, S. (2021). Specific Phobias. [Updated May 15, 2021]. In: StatPearls [Internet]. Retrieved from https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/books/NBK499923/
- Singh, J. & Singh, J. (2016). Treatment options for the specific phobias. International Journal of Basic and Clinical Pharmacology, 5(3), 593–598. doi:10.18203/2319-2003.ijbcp20161496. Retrieved from https://www.ijbcp.com/index.php/ijbcp/article/view/305
Yael Cooperman is a physician and works as a Senior Manager, Medical Content & Education at Ro.