Symptoms and Treatment of Nyctophobia (Fear of the Dark)

Girl asleep in bed lit only by night light.
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While being afraid of the dark may be a part of normal development in young children, that is not the case for older children and adults. Nyctophobia is an age-inappropriate fear of darkness that can prompt someone to limit their activities, avoid certain circumstances, and experience anxiety in anticipation of there being no light. It is when the concern crosses over from being an inborn protective mechanism to being a clinical issue that it is designated a phobia.

Causes

Nyctophobia, also referred to as scotophobia, achluophobia, and lygophobia, may be evolutionary in nature as many predators hunt at night. The fear may not be related to darkness itself but unknown dangers hidden in the darkness (which is why horror and suspense movies often use darkness as a way to scare viewers). Lack of security and confidence can play into this as well, especially if you tend to be afraid of the dark more often while alone.

Some psychoanalytic writers believe that fear of the dark may be related to separation anxiety from a primary attachment figure, a phenomenon that is detailed further in a 2014 analysis on attachment and fear arousal published in the journal Psychoanalytic Dialogues.

Symptoms and Diagnosis

Symptoms of nyctophobia vary from person to person and according to the severity of a particular case. In general, symptoms of nyctophobia include:

  • Becoming nervous in any darkened environment
  • Need to sleep with a night light
  • Being reluctant to go out at night
  • Experiencing physiological symptoms including an increased heart rate, sweating, visible shaking, and even feeling ill (nausea, headaches, and diarrhea are common) when forced to spend time in the dark

Symptoms of more severe cases of nyctophobia include:

  • Attempting to run away from dark rooms
  • Compulsively staying indoors at night
  • Becoming angry or defensive if anyone tries to encourage you to spend time in the dark

Nyctophobia has some diagnostic criteria that are common to all phobias, which distinguishes them from simple fears.

Treatment for Nyctophobia

The goal of therapy is to challenge fearful beliefs about the dark by replacing negative self-talk with more positive messages.

The rate of successful treatment for specific phobias like nyctophobia is about 90 percent and often accomplished through techniques drawn from the cognitive-behavioral school of therapy.

The treatment plan your therapist suggests for you or your child may include:

  • Exposure to the dark in small, incremental, non-threatening doses in a process called desensitization
  • One-on-one talk therapy, family therapy, or group therapy
  • Learning relaxation techniques, such as deep breathing
  • Anti-anxiety and antidepressant medication
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Article Sources

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  • Davis TE, Ollendick TH, Öst L-G. Intensive Treatment of Specific Phobias in Children and AdolescentsCognitive and Behavioral Practice. 2009;16(3):294-303. doi: 10.1016/j.cbpra.2008.12.008.

  • Slade, A. Imagining Fear: Attachment, Threat, and Psychic Experience. Psychoanalytic Dialogues, 2014, 24(3), 253–266. doi:10.1080/10481885.2014.911608

  • American Psychiatric Association. Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (5th Ed). Washington DC: Author; 2013.​​