Heliophobia refers to intense, sometimes irrational fear of the sun. Some people with this condition are also afraid of bright, indoor light. The word heliophobia has its root in the Greek word helios, which means sun.
For some people, heliophobia may be caused by extreme anxiety about getting skin cancer. Others may have a deep, overwhelming fear of wrinkling and photoaging.
There are two types of phobias, simple and complex. Simple phobias are also known as specific phobias. Heliophobia is a specific phobia. Like all phobias, heliophobia is an anxiety disorder.
All phobias are earmarked by debilitating and extreme fear or anxiety, which sometimes leads to panic attacks. Someone with a phobia may go to great lengths to avoid encountering the cause of their dread. Even anticipation of the object can also bring on a panic attack.
Phobias can interfere with your ability to fully participate in activities, reducing quality of life. For someone with heliophobia, this may mean never venturing outside during the day. Others may need to wear lots of clothing, slather exposed skin with sunscreen, and shield their eyes with dark glasses before venturing outside.
The object provoking fear and anxiety differs from phobia to phobia. However, the symptoms are the same across all phobias. Symptoms of heliophobia include:
- immediate, intense upset when confronted with the need to go outside during sunlight
- heightened anxiety when thinking about going outside or being in the sun
- inability to overcome these feelings, even when faced with the elimination of important activities, such as getting children to school or commuting to work
- panic attack
- racing heartbeat
- rapid breathing or shortness of breath
- pounding sensation in the chest
- sweaty palms or breaking out in an all-over sweat
- feeling hot
- nausea or feeling sick
- increased blood pressure
In some instances, you may have a medical condition that requires you to limit or avoid sun exposure. This is not the same as heliophobia, since sun avoidance in these instances is not irrational, or caused by overblown fear. These conditions include:
- Chemical photosensitivity (sun allergy). Oral or topical medications, as well as some skin lotions, can make skin hypersensitive when exposed to UV rays, causing phototoxic reactions to occur. Not all people get photosensitive reactions. Medications causing photosensitivity include antibiotics such as tetracycline and some tricyclic antidepressants.
- Autoimmune conditions. People with autoimmune conditions, such as lupus and scleroderma, may have photosensitivity (heightened sensitivity to the sun).
- Hereditary photodermatoses. Some forms of photosensitivity have a heritable link, and are caused by a single gene defect. These diseases are rare. They include:
- Xeroderma pigmentosum (XP), an autosomal recessive genetic condition that causes extreme sensitivity to the DNA-damaging effects of sunlight. People with XP must protect their skin from sunlight at all times. Many people with this condition only go outside after dark. Others wear protective clothing and sunscreen. XP can damage unprotected skin, eyelids, and the tip of the tongue, making it difficult to control.
- Porphyrias, a rare, inherited blood disorder.
Like all phobias, heliophobia can develop in childhood or in adulthood. It is not completely understood why people acquire specific phobias, including heliophobia.
- In some instances, a traumatic event may make heliophobia more likely to occur. For example, a person who had a very severe sunburn in childhood may become frightened of it happening again, even with limited sun exposure.
- Heliophobia may also be a learned response. If a parent or other adult has heliophobia, they may pass on this fear to the children in their care.
- As with any anxiety disorder, phobias may have a genetic or heritable link. This may cause or worsen heliophobia.
- Exposure to media may also cause or exacerbate heliophobia. Constantly reading or listening to news stories about the aging effects of sunlight may cause fear of the sun in some people.
Your doctor or therapist can make a diagnosis of heliophobia by talking to you and asking questions about your physical and mental symptoms. They will also assess your overall anxiety level.
Your medical, social, and psychiatric history will be taken into account. Your doctor may also want to know if phobias or anxiety disorders run in your family.
Phobias are highly treatable. If heliophobia is interfering with your ability to enjoy life, there are several treatments that can help. They include:
This form of psychotherapy requires consistent and repeated exposure to sunlight until the fear of it dissipates completely.
Exposure therapy is typically supervised. Your therapist may begin therapy by having you think about being in the sun. Eventually, when you are ready, you may be prompted to experience very short bursts of sun exposure. Journaling is sometimes folded into exposure therapy.
Cognitive behavioral therapy
Cognitive behavior therapy (CBT) uses some elements of exposure therapy, along with techniques designed to help you better understand your thoughts, emotions, and behaviors.
Your therapist will provide you with a framework for several exercises that are designed to eradicate your phobia and reduce anxiety.
Medications designed to treat anxiety can be beneficial for heliophobia. These may be prescribed without ancillary treatment or may be used in conjunction with psychotherapy.
Prescribed medications may include beta-blockers, sedatives, or selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors (SSRIs). Sedatives can sometimes lead to dependence, however, so they are not typically a first-line treatment.
Where to find help for phobias
These organizations specialize in mental health treatment. Visit their websites for more information on phobia treatment options in your area:
Heliophobia is an anxiety disorder, earmarked by extreme fear of sunlight. Its root cause is not completely understood, although some people credit an early traumatic experience concerning the sun as its cause.
Heliophobia is highly treatable. People with heliophobia can benefit from psychotherapeutic practices such as CBT and exposure therapy. Medications for anxiety may also help.