Nyctophobia is an extreme fear of night or darkness that can cause intense symptoms of anxiety and depression. A fear becomes a phobia when it’s excessive, irrational, or impacts your day-to-day life.
Being afraid of the dark often starts in childhood and is viewed as a normal part of development. Studies focused on this phobia have shown that humans often fear the dark for its lack of any visual stimuli. In other words, people may fear night and darkness because they cannot see what’s around them.
While some fear is normal, when it starts to impact daily life and sleep patterns, it may be time to visit your doctor.
The symptoms you may experience with nyctophobia are much like those you would experience with other phobias. People with this phobia experience extreme fear that causes distress when they’re in the dark. Symptoms may interfere with daily activities, and school or work performance. They may even lead to health issues.
Different phobias share similar symptoms. These signs may be either physical or emotional. With nyctophobia, symptoms may be triggered by being in the dark or even thinking about situations where you’d find yourself in the dark.
Physical symptoms include:
- trouble breathing
- racing heart rate
- chest tightness or pain
- shaking, trembling, or tingling sensations
- lightheadedness or dizziness
- upset stomach
- hot or cold flashes
Emotional symptoms include:
- overwhelming feelings of anxiety or panic
- an intense need to escape the situation
- detachment from self or feeling “unreal”
- losing control or feeling crazy
- feeling like you may die or lose consciousness
- feeling powerless over your fear
Normal fears versus phobias
Having some fear of the dark doesn’t necessarily mean you have a phobia. However, when the fear starts interfering with your everyday life, it may be considered irrational fear. Here are some scenarios to help illustrate the difference between a normal and irrational fear.
|Situation||Normal fear reaction||May indicate a phobia|
|Feeling anxiety about flying during a thunderstorm with turbulence||✓|
|Skipping your sister’s wedding because you’d have to fly there||✓|
|Feeling nervous or queasy about getting a flu shot||✓|
|Avoiding necessary checkups and medical procedures for fear of needles||✓|
|Feeling uneasy with the lights off at night||✓|
|Missing sleep or feeling extremely distressed at bedtime in darkness||✓|
Fear of darkness and night often starts in childhood between the ages of 3 and 6. At this point, it may be a normal part of development. It’s also common at this age to fear:
- sleeping alone
- strange noises
For many children, sleeping with a nightlight helps until they outgrow the fear. When the fear makes it impossible to sleep, causes severe anxiety, or continues into adulthood, it may be considered nyctophobia.
Additional risk factors include:
- An anxious caregiver. Some children learn to be fearful by seeing a parent’s anxiety over certain issues.
- An overprotective caregiver. Some may develop a generalized anxiety if they’re too dependent on a parent or caregiver, or if they feel helpless.
- Stressful events. Trauma, such as a motor vehicle accident or injury, may also make a person more likely to develop a phobia.
- Genetics. Some adults and children are simply more susceptible to fears, possibly due to their genetics.
Nyctophobia may be associated with a sleep disorder, like insomnia. A small study on college students with insomnia uncovered that nearly half of the students had a fear of the dark. The researchers measured the students’ responses to noises in both light and darkness. Those who had the most trouble sleeping were more easily startled by noise in the dark. Not only that, but the good sleepers actually became used to the noises with time. The students with insomnia grew more and more anxious and anticipatory.
Make an appointment to see a doctor if you or your child:
- have trouble sleeping
- feel particularly anxious or distressed in the dark
- have another reason to believe you may have nyctophobia
Diagnosis involves meeting with your doctor and answering questions about your symptoms. Your doctor may also ask for a psychiatric and social history. From there, your doctor may use the diagnostic criteria from the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, Fifth Edition (DSM-5) on specific phobias to make a formal diagnosis.
Some phobias don’t necessarily require treatment, especially if your fear is of something you don’t normally encounter in everyday life, like snakes or spiders. Nyctophobia, on the other hand, can make it very difficult to get enough sleep. That can affect your overall health and lead to sleep disorders like insomnia.
In general, you may consider seeking treatment if:
- your fear makes you feel extreme anxiety or panic
- you feel your fear is excessive or even unreasonable
- you avoid certain situations due to your fear
- you’ve noticed these feelings for six months or longer
One treatment for people with insomnia involves leaving a dark bedroom to sleep in a lit room. The issue with this treatment is that it doesn’t address the phobia.
Other treatment options include:
This treatment exposes people to their fears repeatedly until the thing they fear, such as being in the dark, no longer triggers feelings of anxiety or panic.
There are a couple of ways to be exposed to fears, including visualizing the fear and experiencing the fear in real life. Many treatment plans blend these two approaches. Some exposure-based treatment plans have worked for people in as little as one long session.
This type of therapy helps people identify their feelings of anxiety and replace them with more positive or realistic thoughts.
With nyctophobia, a person may be presented with information to show that being in the dark doesn’t necessarily lead to negative consequences. This type of treatment is usually not used alone to treat phobias.
Relaxation treatment includes things like deep breathing and exercise. It can help people manage the stress and physical symptoms related to their phobias.
Medication isn’t always an appropriate treatment for people with specific phobias. Unlike medications for other anxiety disorders, there’s little research regarding treating specific phobias with medication.
If you suspect that your or your child has nyctophobia, there are many resources where you might find help. Contacting your doctor or a psychologist is a good first step toward getting treatment.
Many people experience fear related to anything from flying to enclosed spaces. When fear interferes with your everyday life and affects your sleep, especially if it’s been six or more months, let your doctor know. Treatment through cognitive or behavioral therapy can help you overcome your fear and get a better night’s rest.