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Are You Afraid of the Dark? What's Not Normal, Why It Happens and How to Treat It

Fear of the dark is common in children, but adults can have it too.

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Adults afraid of the dark? It's actually more common than you'd think.
Axel Bueckert/EyeEm/Getty Images

When I was young, like many children, I was afraid of the dark. I refused to let my parents close the bedroom door, lest I be plunged into complete darkness. The closet couldn't be opened at all: My mind would imagine something was watching me from its depths. I would beg my parents to leave the hall light on until I fell asleep. (I've since gained an understanding of how electricity bills work, which is arguably more frightening.)

Being afraid of the dark is often associated with childhood, mostly occurring in children ages 6 to 12, according to the Cleveland Clinic. But it's not uncommon for the issue to continue into adulthood. Even though my mind has put many darkness-related fears to rest, there remain moments when I'm in complete darkness that I feel a pang of anxiety.

But if it's not uncommon, when does a normal fear of the dark become a larger problem? Why are we afraid of the dark at all? Can you get over your fear of the dark? Here's everything you need to know.

Is it normal for adults to be afraid of the dark? 

According to E-conolight, a company that specializes in LED lights, nearly 50% of respondents surveyed in 2020 said they're afraid of the dark as adults.

Like many anxieties, if your fear starts to interfere with daily life, it should be examined more closely. According to CNET's sister site Healthline, nyctophobia is an extreme or irrational fear of the dark or night. 

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Fear of the dark and insomnia often go hand in hand.

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People with nyctophobia can be triggered by being in the dark or imagining being in the dark. These triggers can set off symptoms that manifest physically and emotionally. A person with nyctophobia may exhibit symptoms akin to panic attacks, like trouble breathing, chest tightness, shaking or trembling, as well as an intense need to escape the situation, detachment from self and feeling powerless over your fear. 

A person with a normal fear of the dark may feel uneasy in dark space or feel a bit anxious at night. A person with nyctophobia may lose sleep or adjust their daily routine to avoid dark places (like forgoing a trip to the movie theater). According to the Cleveland Clinic, nyctophobia and insomnia are intertwined: People who have trouble sleeping can also subsequently develop nyctophobia. Those with nyctophobia may sleep with the lights on to abate their fears, but this can make sleep difficult.

Why are people afraid of the dark?

A person can be afraid of the dark for many reasons. For me (and likely many others), I notice an increase in anxiety in dark places after consuming spooky media before bedtime. Over the years, researchers have proposed more scientific theories and potential explanations.

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Often, it's not the dark itself that's frightening... but the fear of what might be hidden in the dark.

Lotus Carroll/EyeEm/Getty Images

Being afraid of the dark may harken back to the earliest days of humankind, according to a CNN report. Our ancestors quickly adopted a big rule for survival: The dark provides cover for dangerous predators on the prowl, so it must be avoided. 

Basically, it's less likely that you're afraid of the dark itself. Instead, you may fear the unknown and unseen. 

"In the dark, our visual sense vanishes, and we are unable to detect who or what is around us. We rely on our visual system to help protect us from harm," Martin Antony, professor of psychology at Ryerson University in Toronto, said in the report.

Stressful or traumatic events, genetics or children being around anxious or overprotective caregivers can increase the risk of being scared of the dark. 

Are there treatments for fear of the dark? 

If your anxieties or negative feelings about being in darkness have been unmanageable for six months or more, you may want to look at treatment options. Cognitive therapy can help you understand the root of your anxieties and how they relate to your fear of the dark. Therapy can also help train your mind to seek more positive or logical solutions in times of panic, as well as help abate any shame you may feel about being afraid of the dark. 

Healthline also suggested exposure therapy, which involves exposing yourself to the dark repeatedly until it no longer activates a fear response. In 2020, several studies around exposure therapy — especially in vivo exposure, or facing your fear in real life — showed that 80% to 90% of participants responded positively.

For less extreme cases, you can try relaxation techniques or meditation. Deep breathing and mindfulness may help you manage the physical anxiety symptoms. If you think you or your child has nyctophobia, contact a doctor or psychologist to discuss options. 

The information contained in this article is for educational and informational purposes only and is not intended as health or medical advice. Always consult a physician or other qualified health provider regarding any questions you may have about a medical condition or health objectives.