Nyctophobia is a phobia or fear of darkness. It’s natural to have fears, but if they negatively impact your life, you may find treatment helpful.

If you were afraid of the dark as a kid, you might remember asking a loved one to turn on a nightlight at bedtime. Your heightened imagination can lead to scary thoughts of what could be lurking.

As an adult, you may fear the dark because of a difficult or traumatic experience or a childhood fear that hasn’t left you.

Fears are natural, but an extreme fear of the dark can be a concern if it interrupts your daily life. There are several treatment options for phobias like nyctophobia, including cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) and exposure therapy.

Nyctophobia is a specific phobia.

A specific phobia is an excessive, irrational fear of a particular object or situation that leads to anxiety, distress, and avoidance symptoms. In the case of nyctophobia, the thing causing your fear is darkness.

According to research, an estimated 5% to 10% of people living in the United States have one or more specific phobias. Other common phobias include fear of heights, public speaking, and certain animals.

When severe, nyctophobia can lead to significant issues in your personal and professional life.

People with nyctophobia experience anxiety symptoms when faced with darkness or anticipating experiencing darkness for 6 months or more.

Symptoms of nyctophobia include:

  • difficulty breathing
  • fast heartbeat
  • dizziness
  • nausea
  • fainting
  • avoidance
  • tenseness
  • freezing

This fear of darkness may lead to significant distress or impair how you function in life.

The phobia can stem from specific experiences or stick with you from childhood to your adult life.

Some people fear the unknown. When they can’t see what’s around them, it can cause anxiety and tension. Your brain naturally creates a startle response to darkness. But most people feel it only temporarily. With nyctophobia, the startle response can remain throughout the experience.

You may fear darkness because you perceive the environment as threatening. For example, what you know about crimes may make you think they’re more likely to happen to you at night. You fear what might happen in the dark because you’ve heard or seen bad things happen to others in the same environment.

According to a 2015 study, experts determined that an estimated 40% of people in the United States are afraid to walk within a mile of their home at night. This fear is also more likely to occur in women than men because many believe they’re more likely to become victims of crimes.

Your culture can also influence your fears of nighttime and darkness. For example, the stories you hear or read and events seen on television or in movies may impact your unconscious mind.

When you compare nyctophobia among different cultures and countries, you can see a difference in how those perceive the dark.

For example, some research findings suggest that children from the Middle East hold a more intense fear of darkness than those from the United States. Researchers hypothesize the reason behind this difference may be cultural.

Finally, your fear of the dark may stem from a traumatic experience. For example, if you experience a traumatic event in a dark environment, it can be a trigger for post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD).

Nyctophobia in different age groups

  • Younger children. Fears develop during specific points of their development. They can also occur when young children see their parents fearing something.
  • Older children. Anxiety disorders typically emerge when a child reaches about 11 years of age, and they demonstrate a greater fear-powered startle reflex around this age, per research from 2011.
  • Adults. Some adults don’t grow out of a fear of the dark. The suspicion remains, but the reason why they’re scared changes.

Nyctophobia is not a sleep disorder but a specific phobia. But sleep disorders can occur because of mental health conditions like specific phobias.

For example, if your terror of the dark prevents you from getting a good night’s rest, it may be considered a trigger for a sleep disorder or insomnia.

Behavioral therapy is one of the most effective treatments for nyctophobia and other phobias. Working with a therapist, you may explore the following:

  • Systematic desensitization. Over time, you’re gradually exposed to greater amounts of darkness and taught various techniques to manage your symptoms.
  • Cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT). This type of therapy continuously reinforces the idea that darkness is safe until you can face the dark alone using learned skills.
  • Flooding. This technique, also known as implosion, slowly increases your exposure to the dark while decreasing anxiety.
  • Virtual reality (VR). VR therapy can help by exposing you to darkness via a computer screen or VR headset.

VR is a newer technique, so more research is needed to determine its effectiveness.

If you’re concerned about the impact fear of the dark has on your life, consider talking with a mental health professional about your symptoms. They can help you overcome your very real fear of the dark.

If you’re experiencing symptoms of PTSD, consider checking out the Anxiety & Depression Association of America’s website to find help near you.