Nyctophobia, scotophobia, or lygophobia, as it is sometimes called, is a common specific phobia or anxiety disorder that causes extreme fear of the dark. When exposed to the dark, people with nyctophobia develop intense symptoms, ranging from headaches and dizziness to intense anxiety and panic attacks.
Read on to learn more about nyctophobia, everything from its causes and risk factors to treatment options and whether it is a ‘’normal’’ fear most of us outgrow or a serious mental health condition.
We all have things we fear, whether it be losing a loved one, death, heights, running out of time, experiencing failure, heartbreak, or rejection, or, as this article will cover, the dark. Experiencing fear is normal and not something to be concerned about, however, it becomes a problem once it develops into a phobia and starts to disrupt and interfere with basic day-to-day activities.
Phobias are a type of anxiety disorder which gets triggered by a feared object, situation, place, person, or activity that is usually harmless, such as the dark, as is the case with nyctophobia. People with nyctophobia experience irrational fear, intense anxiety, and discomfort when being alone in the dark or sleeping and entering dark places (amongst others). Just the thought of being in the dark or going outdoors at night can pose a major challenge for people with nyctophobia. The term nyctophobia is derived from the Greek word ‘nyktos’, meaning ‘’night’’. Nyctophobia is also sometimes referred to as ‘’scotophobia’’ or ‘’lygophobia’’. It is important to note that nyctophobia is not just fear of the darkness itself, but also fear of everything that is lurking within it and concealed by it; what, who, and where.
Causes of nyctophobia
The precise causes for nyctophobia remain unclear. However, there are many speculations surrounding the causes of nyctophobia, including the following:
Experiencing a traumatic event in the dark is thought to be one of the main causes of nyctophobia because a person who has had a traumatic experience in the dark tends to associate darkness to trauma and therefore develop intense fear and anxiety when exposed to the dark.
Normal child developmental cause
Many researchers believe that nyctophobia is a normal part of child development as most children are born feeling afraid of monsters, ghosts, and robbers lurking in the shadows, as well as sleeping alone.
According to research studies, people who have a twin (30-44% risk) or first-degree relative (3 times higher risk) with a specific phobia have a high risk of developing the same phobia, leading to the speculation that nyctophobia has a genetic cause.1
Signs and symptoms of nyctophobia
Nyctophobia symptoms and signs are diverse and can be categorised into:
Physical symptoms of nyctophobia
- Profuse sweating (hyperhidrosis)
- Swallowing difficulties (dysphagia) and dry mouth
- Breathing difficulties e.g. shortness of breath (dyspnea), and/or fast breathing
- Heart palpitations and/or increased heart rate
- Nausea and vomiting, especially when thinking about the dark or nighttime
Emotional symptoms of nyctophobia
- Panic attacks
- Intense anxiety, extreme fear, and dread when exposed to the darkness
Diagnosis of nyctophobia
Your general practitioner (GP), doctor or healthcare provider can diagnose nyctophobia by:
- Conducting physical examination and enquiring about your medical and family history
- Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, Fifth Edition (DSM-5) diagnostic criteria: Following the first step, the healthcare provider may refer the patient to a psychologist or mental health expert specialising in phobias to compare the symptoms of the patient with those provided in the DSM-5 diagnostic criteria for nyctophobia 2
In order to make a formal diagnosis of nyctophobia, the patient must meet seven criteria including: 2
- The fear of the darkness must be ‘’marked and persistent, excessive or unreasonable’’
- When exposed to the dark, the patient must experience anxiety disorder and nyctophobia-related symptoms
- The patient must be aware that their fear of the darkness is ‘’excessive or unreasonable’’
- The patient must ‘’avoid’’ dark places or ‘’endure’’ them with ‘’intense anxiety and distress’’
- The extreme fear of the dark should ‘’interfere significantly’’ with the patient’s normal day-to-day routine
- The patient must experience nyctophobia for a minimum of 6 months, particularly ‘’if younger than 18 years old’’
- The phobia should not be associated with another mental health condition or disorder
Management and treatment for nyctophobia
Management and treatment for nyctophobia primarily depends on the trigger for nyctophobia and the signs and symptoms experienced.
Some of the main current management and treatment options for nyctophobia include:
- Sleeping with the lights on
- Medications: if the above option appears futile, a healthcare provider may recommend melatonin supplements to help relieve insomnia (sleep difficulty). Antidepressants may also be recommended if the person struggles with depression, anxiety disorder, and/or panic attacks
- Different types of therapy are available to help people manage nyctophobia. They are:
- Cognitive behavioural therapy (CBT): helps transform negative thoughts and beliefs about the dark into more positive and healthy ones
- Exposure therapy: this under the supervision of a healthcare provider, involves ‘desensitisation’ by gradually exposing the person to the dark to become more comfortable with it
- Hypnotherapy (or hypnotic therapy): involves ‘hypnosis’ or engaging in relaxation techniques to help rewire and train the brain to be more calm and relaxed in the dark
- Psychotherapy (or talk therapy): to unravel, understand, and manage fears of the dark by talking about them
- Relaxation techniques: these involve yoga, deep breathing exercises, and/or meditation to control anxiety disorder-related symptoms that develop when exposed to the dark
Unfortunately, if left untreated and/or not properly managed, nyctophobia can lead to a myriad of uncomfortable and severe complications including:
- Insomnia and/or sleep difficulties
- Relationship problems
- Work and school-related issues
- Social withdrawal
- Brain development and growth impairment in children due to insufficient sleep
- Learning and behavioural issues especially in children
- Mental health conditions e.g. anxiety disorder, depression, panic attacks etc
The main risk factors for nyctophobia include:
- Age: Nyctophobia is more likely to occur during childhood than adulthood, however, nyctophobia can still affect people at any age
- Traumatic events occurring in the dark
- Family history of nyctophobia and/or other specific phobias
- Personal history of mental disorders e.g. depression, generalised anxiety disorder (GAD), post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), substance use disorder, obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD), panic disorder, and/or panic attacks
How can I prevent nyctophobia?
To prevent nyctophobia, consider implementing the following strategies:
- Sleep with the lights on
- Take care of your mental health: to decrease your risk of developing nyctophobia
- CBT: talk about your fears of the dark, challenge and face them to avoid them developing into phobias
- Follow a relaxing evening and sleep routine: consider doing deep breathing exercises, yoga, and/or meditation before bed to unwind, and make sure to limit caffeine intake at night
How common is nyctophobia?
Nyctophobia is very common, especially among 6 to 12-year-old children. Research suggests that up to 30% of children experience nyctophobia, with the majority outgrowing this fear by adolescence.1
What are the triggers of nyctophobia?
Nyctophobia has a wide range of triggers, with each trigger varying from person to person in type, frequency, and severity.
However, the most common triggers of nyctophobia include the following:
- Entering dark places e.g. movie theatres, cinemas etc
- Getting ready for bed
- Seeing the sunset
- Thinking about being in the dark
- Turning the lights off
- Watching a movie or TV show set in the dark
When should I see a doctor?
See a doctor immediately if you:
- Experience any symptoms for at least 6 months
- Struggle with insomnia or low energy levels (fatigue)
- Avoid situations, places, or activities at night due to extreme fear of the dark
- Experience panic attacks or intense anxiety when exposed to the darkness
Nyctophobia also referred to as ‘’scotophobia’’ and ‘’lygophobia’’, is a specific phobia or anxiety disorder that causes extreme fear of the dark. Although it affects people at any age, it is the most common fear experienced by 6 to 12-year-old children. Though the exact cause remains unclear, if you had any past traumatic experience or if you have a history of mental disorders (e.g. PTSD, anxiety disorder, or depression), and/or a twin or first-degree relative with nyctophobia or other specific phobias you are more at the risk of developing nyctophobia.
If you experience any of the physical and emotional symptoms like extreme fear, intense anxiety, and dread in situations and places involving the dark, panic attacks, or trouble with breathing and swallowing for a long time please visit your GP. Your GP might refer you to a mental health expert specialising in phobia if needed or might advise you to sleep with your lights on or recommend therapy and/or relaxation techniques.
- Villafuerte S, Burmeister M. [No title found]. Genome Biol [Internet]. 2003 [cited 2023 Nov 13];4(8):224. Available from: http://genomebiology.biomedcentral.com/articles/10.1186/gb-2003-4-8-224
- Thobaben M. Common phobias. Home Care Provider [Internet]. 1997 Oct [cited 2023 Nov 13];2(5):215–7. Available from: https://linkinghub.elsevier.com/retrieve/pii/S1084628X97901106