What is Nyctophobia? and How to Treat it

Nyctophobia is Highly Treatable in Adults and Children

Girl asleep in bed lit only by night light.
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Nyctophobia, or fear of the dark, is one of the most common specific phobias in children. Between the ages of 6 and 12, many kids are afraid of the dark, especially if they are alone, but this is a normal stage of development and not a phobia.

Most people retain a bit of a fear of the dark throughout life and this fear may be evolutionary in nature as many predators hunt at night. Consequently, horror movies and Halloween events use darkness as a way to scare you.

Is It a Fear or a Phobia?

The difference is a phobia is an irrational fear and a debilitating anxiety disorder that doesn't go away by itself and can worsen over time. While being afraid of the dark may be a part of normal development in young children, for older children and adults, nyctophobia is an age-inappropriate fear and can prevent you from living an otherwise "normal" life.

There are distinct criteria from the American Psychiatric Association (APA) that dictate the differences between a fear and a phobia. The most basic difference is that a phobia interferes with your life while the consequences of a fear are much less severe.

Your healthcare professional might give you or your child a phobia diagnosis if your fear of the dark is: 

  • a strong fear accompanied by intense psychological or physical symptoms
  • a persistent fear with symptoms lasting for more than 6 months

What Is a Specific Phobia?

Nyctophobia is a specific phobia, which is a fear of a specific object or situation and represents one of three phobia classifications (the other two are social phobia, or social anxiety disorder, and agoraphobia).

Some experts categorize specific phobia into three groupings:

  1. situational phobias, such as darkness, heights and enclosed spaces
  2. animal phobias, such as a fear of spiders or snakes
  3. mutilation phobias, such as fear of the dentist or injections

Symptoms of Nyctophobia

Symptoms of nyctophobia vary from person to person and according to the severity of your particular case.

In general, symptoms of nyctophobia include:

  • becoming nervous in any darkened environment
  • sleeping with a nightlight
  • 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

Treatment for Nyctophobia

The goal of therapy is to challenge your, or your child's, 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

Sources:

American Psychiatric Association. (1994). Diagnostic and statistical manual of mental disorders (4th Ed.)

Davis, et al. Cognitive Behaviour Practices: Intensive Treatment of Specific Phobia in Children and Adolescents (2010)

Fredrikson, et al. Behaviour Research and Therapy: Gender and Age Differences in the Prevalence of Specific Fears and Phobias (1996) HealthyChildren.org: Understanding Childhood Fears and Anxiety (2015)

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