It’s not unusual for children to be afraid of the dark. Parents try to soothe those fears, making a big show of looking under beds and in closets and announcing that there are no monsters hiding, and then leaving a nightlight on either in the room or just outside the doorway to ease suspicious minds. None of these precautions, of course, are a guarantee that small bodies won’t be dashing into their parents’ bedroom and hunkering down under the covers sometime during the wee hours.
Yet being afraid of the dark isn’t just for kids; adults experience it as well. I know that I have struggled with a fear of the dark for many decades, and only recently have I felt more in control of the issue. I owe that feeling of confidence to a better understanding of why people are afraid of the dark.
Why are we afraid of the dark?
Research suggests that we are hardwired to be afraid of the dark not because it is dark but because of what it conceals. For our ancestors, that may have meant a hungry animal lurking outside the cave entrance. Today, if you are walking down a dark, deserted alley late at night (and why would you be?), darkness could be the cover for a would-be rapist, homeless person, or small furry creatures. Darkness leaves us vulnerable and at a disadvantage because we feel out of control in this environment.
Similar to children, however, adults who are afraid of the dark often experience this feeling in bed at night, when their imaginations can run wild and leave them hypersensitive to every creak, squeak, and rustle in the night and doubts. Did I lock the front door? Are all the windows secure? Was that a footstep outside? The result can be a long, tense night and poor sleep or insomnia.
Humans lack the superior night vision of, say, cats (and lions and tigers…oh my!), who have more rods than cones and elliptical pupils, which allow more light to enter than do a human’s round pupil. This feature helps wild cats to hunt at night (and your domestic feline friends to play madly throughout the night in your house as well). Thus we are left to rely on Edison’s invention (and various other technological advancements) to pull us back from the brink of fear in the darkness when it hits. When we are lying awake fearful of what we cannot see, if we turn on a light, we discover our fears are unfounded.
As adults, we realize that darkness is a key element in our circadian rhythm and an essential factor for health-promoting sleep. Yet for those who are excessively afraid of the dark, it also can represent anxiety. While our ancestors may have been prone to sleep with one eye open because of possible attacks from man-eating creatures, we don’t have that fear (at least, not rationally). For those who are abnormally afraid of the dark, every bump in the night can be feared.
An extreme fear of the dark, known as achluophobia (aka, nyctophobia, scotophobia, lygophobia) can not only affect your ability to sleep but also cause you to experience symptoms such as shortness of breath, rapid heartbeat, sweating, dry mouth, nausea, and shaking. Such extremes should be discussed with a knowledgeable healthcare provider. Cognitive behavioral therapy, as well as hypnosis, desensitization, and exposure therapy have all been used to treat this phobia.
If your fear of the dark isn’t extreme, some tips on how to manage it is to focus on the fact that being afraid of the dark has evolutionary roots, that your imagination is the real monster in the room, and that turning on a light can dispel those fears. I also found meditation to be effective, and the treatments for achluophobia can certainly be used as well. Then you can be well on the way to a better night’s sleep and banishing those shadows and demons. Being excessively afraid of the dark is nothing to be ashamed of and certainly warrants immediate attention from a qualified professional for your physical, mental, and emotional health…and a good night’s sleep!