Nyctophobia (Fear of the Dark)
What is nyctophobia?
Nyctophobia is an extreme fear of the dark. The name comes from the Greek word for night. Children and adults with nyctophobia may fear being alone in the dark. They may have anxiety in dark places, and they may have trouble sleeping in a darkened room.
Providers sometimes call fear of the dark scotophobia (fear of darkness) or lygophobia. Untreated, people with severe nyctophobia may avoid any situation where there isn’t enough light. They may stay indoors after the sun goes down and avoid social situations that require being out after dark.
People with nyctophobia may also have trouble sleeping (insomnia), which can lead to fatigue during the day and even trouble keeping a job. Several types of therapy can help children and adults with this disorder.
What is a phobia?
A specific phobia is a type of anxiety disorder. These disorders cause adults and kids to have an irrational, intense fear of something that’s actually harmless. People with phobias have extreme, unrealistic reactions to something that many other people don’t find scary.
Nyctophobia is a specific phobia disorder, which is an extreme fear of a particular situation or thing. If you have a specific phobia disorder, you may go to great lengths to avoid the object or situation that upsets you.
How common is nyctophobia?
Nyctophobia is very common, especially among children. Some researchers estimate that nearly 45% of children have an unusually strong fear of some kind. Fear of the dark is one of the most common fears among kids between 6 and 12 years old. Kids usually outgrow nyctophobia by adolescence, but not always.
Across the United States, about 9% of adults have had a specific phobia disorder in the past year. More than 12% of adults have had a specific phobia in their lifetime. In general, women are more likely to get specific phobic disorders. But anyone can get them.
Symptoms and Causes
Who is at risk of nyctophobia?
Nyctophobia is much more common in children than adults, but people of all ages can be afraid of the dark. Children and adults who had a traumatic or troubling experience in the dark are more likely to develop this type of phobia, especially if the event happened in the dark. Memories of that scary experience can return whenever the lights go out or even when you think about being in the dark. This means nyctophobia can develop as part of post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD).
Nyctophobia can also develop after watching a scary movie or hearing an upsetting story. You (or your child) may replay these frightening images in your head. And if it’s too dark to see around you, you may worry that the fear-provoking objects are real.
You have an increased risk of developing any type of specific phobic disorder if you have:
- Substance use disorder.
- Generalized anxiety disorder (GAD).
- History of mental illness.
- Obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD).
- Other phobias or a history of phobias in your family.
- Panic attacks or panic disorder.
What causes nyctophobia?
Some researchers believe that fear of the dark probably dates back to our ancestors. Many, many years ago, when our ancestors lived and slept out in the open, the dark was very dangerous. Predators roamed at night, and our ancestors had to stay aware in order to survive.
But nyctophobia isn’t just about being afraid of the dark. Kids and adults with this phobia actually have a fear of what they can’t see. In the dark, many children are afraid of ghosts, monsters or robbers. They may worry about noises they hear when the lights are out, especially if they can’t tell what caused them. They fear what’s in the dark as much as they fear the darkness itself.
A traumatic experience (even one that happened during the day) can lead to nyctophobia. The memory of a scary event can return when it’s dark, causing an extreme reaction.
What are the triggers of nyctophobia?
Nearly everyone feels uneasy or uncomfortable in the dark from time to time. But a specific phobia is more than just an occasional fear. Phobias get in the way of everyday life. Children and adults with nyctophobia often have severe anxiety when:
- Entering a dark place (like a movie theater).
- Getting ready for bed.
- Seeing the sun go down.
- Thinking about being in the dark.
- Trying to sleep at night.
- Turning out the lights.
- Watching a movie or TV show with nighttime scenes.
What are the symptoms of nyctophobia?
People with an extreme fear of the dark experience intense fear or anxiety when they’re in the dark or think about darkness. Children may avoid going to bed or refuse to turn the lights out at bedtime. Signs of nyctophobia include:
- Difficulty swallowing (dysphagia) and dry mouth.
- Dizziness and headaches.
- Excessive sweating (hyperhidrosis).
- Feelings of dread, catastrophic (terrifying) thoughts and panic attacks.
- Increased heart rate, non-cardiac chest pain or heart palpitations.
- Intense emotions, crying and screaming in the dark.
- Nausea and vomiting when thinking about the dark or nighttime.
- Shortness of breath (dyspnea), difficulty breathing or fast breathing.
Diagnosis and Tests
How do healthcare providers diagnose nyctophobia?
To diagnose this phobia, your provider will ask about your symptoms (or your child’s symptoms), including when they began and when they occur. Tell your provider about any scary or traumatic experiences you’ve had, even if they occurred during daylight.
Your provider will want to know if nyctophobia is affecting your sleep and daily activities. They'll also ask about any other phobias you have or if you have a family history of phobias.
Your provider may refer you to a mental health professional who specializes in phobias. A mental health professional is an expert who is specially trained to diagnose phobias. They also help with other anxiety disorders.
Management and Treatment
How do providers treat nyctophobia?
Sleeping with a nightlight can help some children and adults feel more comfortable in a darkened room. Sometimes, just having a little light is enough to help people with nyctophobia fall asleep and stay asleep.
If you have insomnia, your provider may recommend melatonin supplements or other medications to help you sleep. If you had a traumatic experience that’s causing distress, your provider will recommend therapy or counseling to help you understand your feelings and learn to manage them. You may also need medications to treat depression or control panic attacks.
Several types of therapy can help people with a severe fear of the dark, including:
- Cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT), to learn to change how you respond to your fear of the dark.
- Exposure therapy, which involves gradually exposing you to the dark so you can become desensitized to it. It’s important to do this therapy under the supervision of your provider.
- Hypnotherapy, which helps you rethink your fear of the dark and the anxiety it causes. Hypnotherapy includes guided relaxation exercises while your mind is in a calm state.
- Psychotherapy, or talk therapy, to help you understand your fears and manage them.
- Mindfulness exercises, like yoga, breathing exercises and meditation to help you control anxiety when you’re in the dark.
What are the complications of nyctophobia?
Nyctophobia often goes hand-in-hand with insomnia. People who have trouble sleeping may develop a fear of the dark, and people who have a fear of the dark often have trouble sleeping. They can develop extreme anxiety when they turn off the lights or even close their eyes.
To avoid the dark, people with nyctophobia may try to sleep with the lights on. But sleeping with the lights on can make it very difficult to get restful sleep.
Too little sleep can cause extreme fatigue. Being exhausted during the day can make it difficult to hold down a job. Untreated, nyctophobia can cause problems with relationships, especially if you avoid leaving your house after dark because of your fears.
Sleeping difficulties interfere with your child’s development and can lead to behavioral or learning issues. They can also affect your child’s growth.
Outlook / Prognosis
What is the prognosis (outlook) for people who have nyctophobia?
Most people with nyctophobia get better with therapy. But the outlook depends on the severity of the phobia. People with severe nyctophobia and other anxiety disorders may need several types of therapy for the condition to improve. You or your child may need long-term therapy.
When should I see my healthcare provider about nyctophobia?
Talk to your provider if you or your child has severe signs of nyctophobia. Get help if you’re having trouble sleeping or you’re avoiding situations that involve being in the dark.
See your provider right away if you’re having panic attacks or if anxiety gets in the way of your daily life.
Many kids are afraid of the dark when they’re young. It’s a very common childhood fear, and most kids grow out of it. But you should call your child’s provider if their fear is severe.
What questions should I ask my doctor?
To gain a better understanding of nyctophobia and your treatment options, you may want to ask your provider:
- What is the cause of nyctophobia?
- How do you cure nyctophobia?
- What type of therapy or treatment is right for me?
- What experience do you have with exposure therapy, hypnotherapy and CBT?
- What relaxation techniques can I do on my own to control my anxiety when I’m in the dark?
A note from Cleveland Clinic
If you or your child has an intense fear of the dark, ask your provider about therapies that can help. You should call your provider if you’re having panic attacks or if you’re avoiding situations that involve being in the dark. Severe nyctophobia can cause problems sleeping, which can lead to exhaustion during the day. Therapy, including exposure therapy and CBT, can help people with nyctophobia. Your provider can also show you relaxation techniques to calm your fears and help you relax in the dark.
Cleveland Clinic is a non-profit academic medical center. Advertising on our site helps support our mission. We do not endorse non-Cleveland Clinic products or services. Policy