Fear of the dark, also called achluophobia or nyctophobia, is a common phobia in adults. If you’re afraid of the dark, you may find sleeping difficult at night, affecting your long-term health.
Sleeping with a night light is the easiest way to combat a fear of the dark, but this only deals with the symptoms, not the problem. While a night light can aid sleep, you’ll need a permanent solution.
If you’re fearful in darkness, consider if it’s due to environmental factors. Avoid these triggers if the mind is filled with images and thoughts based on things you’ve watched or read during the day.
Stimulants, especially nicotine, alcoholic beverages, and narcotics, are linked to fear of the dark.
If you’re uneasy in darkness, avoid caffeine because it increases the heart rate and keeps the mind racing, increasing the risk of vivid, anxious thoughts.
Exposure therapy can treat phobias, so spend short periods in darkness during the day before spending an entire night alone in the dark.
Work on changing negative into positive thoughts when darkness descends.
Consider if your bedroom could be more comforting. Redecorate to introduce a calming color scheme, and if you have a family pet, consider allowing a cat or dog to sleep with you to calm your nerves.
How Common Is Fear of Darkness in Adults?
About 11% of adult Americans fear the dark. While common in children, and many are expected to overcome this anxiety by their teenage years, anxiety can continue into adulthood.
As the Psi Chi Journal of Psychological Research explains, a fear of darkness that carries over from childhood to adulthood involves transitioning from ‘imagined’ threats to ‘realistic’ fears.
Nighttime fears involve ghosts, monsters under the bed, and other imaginary dangers in children.
Adults are likelier to be concerned by the threat of intruders in the home, entering under cover of darkness and remaining undetected due to poor visibility.
When Does Fear of the Dark Become a Phobia?
We must distinguish between a fear of darkness and a phobia.
Fear of the dark may leave you apprehensive about unlit spaces, but it won’t impact your everyday life. Somebody afraid of the dark may feel uneasy at bedtime but will eventually fall asleep.
A phobia will have a prolonged impact, meaning you can’t sleep in darkness.
Somebody with a phobia of darkness will likely avoid going to bed, preferring to stay awake in a well-lit area, often with artificial stimulants to stave off sleep.
Beyond a general sense of impending doom, common phobia symptoms include:
- Racing heart rate and blood pressure.
- Tightness in the chest.
- Struggling for breath.
- Dry mouth and difficulty speaking coherently.
- Muscular tremors.
- Nausea and stomach upset.
The failure to get sufficient rest can create problems in your waking life and may mean you can’t share a bed with a partner. Consequently, phobias often require medical intervention.
Achluophobia vs. Nyctophobia
Two terms are connected to fear of the dark in adults: achluophobia and nyctophobia. While these terms are sometimes used interchangeably, this is inaccurate.
Nyctophobia is a fear of darkness at night and is frequently linked directly to sleep disorders.
Nycto is the Greek translation of “night,” which is how this phobia earned its name. Most people with nyctophobia grow steadily more uneasy as day turns to night.
Achluophobia is an acute fear of darkness in any form or time of day.
Somebody with achluophobia will be afraid to enter an unlit basement or closet or even refuse to shield their eyes with a mask, regardless of the time of day.
Both achluophobia and nyctophobia are recognized as anxiety disorders by doctors.
Why am I Afraid of the Dark?
Common explanations for achluophobia and nyctophobia include:
- Physical or emotional trauma leads to PTSD, especially if this event unfolds in darkness.
- Fear is based on memories of frightening images or stories heard during the day.
- Genetic inheritance – Genome Biology explains how phobias are passed from parents to children.
Phobias can also be linked to pre-existing mental health concerns, including depression, generalized anxiety disorder (GAD,) obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD,) and substance abuse.
How To Fall Asleep When Scared of The Dark
If your fear of the dark is causing insomnia, you’ll experience difficulty in your waking life. Regularly getting 7-8 hours of quality sleep is essential to physical and mental health.
Medication, like sleeping pills or beta-blockers, may calm your anxiety and slow your heart rate but won’t resolve the underlying problem.
Work on overcoming the phobia rather than quick fixes to reduce physical symptoms.
Once you understand the triggers for a fear of darkness, avoid exposing yourself near bedtime. Don’t watch horror movies or the news or let people share upsetting news at night.
Smoking cigarettes to calm down will elevate your heart rate. You may also crave more nicotine in bed, causing greater anxiety, especially if you are too nervous to get up to act on this desire.
Avoid caffeine for at least 6 hours before bed, ideally longer. Allow the body and mind to tire naturally without artificial stimulants that keep your thoughts racing.
Adding night lights, or simply sleeping with a door open and leaving a hallway light on, is the most straightforward remedy for fear of the dark.
PLoS One explains how light exposure reduces activity in the amygdala (responsible for emotion).
Consequently, light means it’s less likely you’ll experience an “amygdala hijack” – a fight-or-flight response to a stressful situation.
Specialist night lights emit soft light to keep you calm without disturbing the circadian rhythms.
Using a night light can make your sleeping arrangements incompatible with a loved one who needs darkness to rest. The other issue is that it won’t help you overcome a fear of the dark.
Many phobias can be overcome through exposure therapy. If you’re afraid of the dark, exposure therapy revolves around short, controlled exposure to blackness in a safe environment.
The different forms of exposure therapy are as follows:
- In vivo exposure. Cover your eyes with a mask for a few minutes during daylight hours rather than leaving yourself alone in darkness for hours.
- Imaginal exposure. You’ll be asked to imagine the feelings you experience alone in a dark room at night, knowing you are safe in a well-lit environment.
- Virtual reality exposure. Technology will be used to simulate darkness, like walking through a forest at night while in a physically secure environment.
- Interoceptive exposure. Short, sharp exposure to that which frightens you, like having your eyes covered or lights switched out without warning. Repeated interoceptive exposure will help the brain understand that darkness is harmless.
According to F1000 Research, exposure therapy can treat 80–90% of phobias.
This is primarily because phobias are considered an irrational but devastating fear, and the brain must be coached into realizing that darkness holds no terrors beyond those in our minds.
White Noise Machine
Noise can play a role in fear of the dark. Some people struggle to relax when a house is dark and silent, with every creaky floorboard or tap on the window provoking an anxious response.
Poor weather, especially thunderstorms, can magnify a phobia of darkness.
White noise machines have a range of settings, so you can potentially listen to the soothing sounds of the falling rain or a busy city that makes you feel less alone and threatened.
Practice Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT)
CBT is a practice favored by many therapists that centers on changing how you think and act. CBT involves adjusting your thought patterns when you’re alone at night to manage your fear of the dark.
Here are some thought patterns you can try to reverse when exposed to darkness at night:
|It’s so dark and quiet in here – it’s spooky.||I love how dark and quiet it is right now – things are rarely this peaceful.|
|What if somebody breaks into my house tonight?||The sooner I fall asleep, the faster morning will arrive, and I can start a new day.|
|I shouldn’t sleep as it might be unsafe.||I should sleep because I won’t feel good in the morning.|
|The night feels so long. When will the sun come up?||The sooner I fall asleep, the faster morning will arrive, and I can start a new day.|
Changing your mindset won’t be an overnight process, but with patience and practice, you can re-train the mind to stop fearing the worst and appreciate the positives of a situation.
Redecorate The Bedroom
If you find that darkness seems more frightening in your bedroom, your decor may be responsible.
Consider if anything in the room contributes to your anxiety, like badly positioned furnishings that block external light or restrict exit paths.
The color scheme of a bedroom may also contribute to a fear of the dark. While you can’t see colors in a pitch-black room, you’ll likely spend time with the lights on before sleeping.
Avoid bold and intense shades, especially reds.
Psychology and Education stated that red hues provoke feelings of danger. If you’re already prone to fretfulness in darkness, exposure to red tones before sleep will elevate your concerns.
Shades of blue and purple are widely considered to promote feelings of calm.
While you’ll have a unique and personal relationship with color, consider how these hues may enhance your ability to relax and sleep when the lights are turned out.
Sleep with A Pet
If you share your home with a pet, consider allowing them to sleep near you.
Frontiers in Psychology stated that the presence of an animal companion increases oxycontin production and decreases the release of cortisol (the stress hormone).
The presence of a trusted pet can also bolster your sense of confidence, as you’ll feel protected, and assuage concerns that the darkness contains threats you can’t see.
Dogs and cats have superior night vision to humans and enhanced senses of hearing and smell, so an animal will notify you if the darkness holds something to fear.
Sharing a bed with a pet isn’t ideal for everybody. You shouldn’t have this sleeping arrangement if you have allergies to animal dander or if your phobia could trigger anxiety in a pet.
Fear of the dark is more common in adults than many realize, and it can harm sleep. Take steps to overcome or manage your apprehension about the arrival of the night.