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Noctiphobia is the extreme and overwhelming fear of the night and is often connected to a fear of the dark. Although it can occur at any age, noctiphobia is more common in children, with statistics suggesting that up to 30% of children experience a fear of the dark and night at some point in their childhood.
Noctiphobia can be a debilitating phobia, which can affect your social life, your relationships, your sleep habits and your health.
Today, we are going to look at noctiphobia in more detail, including the common causes, triggers, symptoms and treatments.
What is noctiphobia?
Noctiphobia is an extreme, irrational and overwhelming fear of the night. Someone with this phobia will likely experience intense fear, anxiety or panic if they are outside at night, see something they associate with nighttime, such as the moon and stars, or when they think about nighttime.
A fear of the night often extends to and is connected to a fear of the dark and is closely connected with nyctophobia – an extreme fear of the dark and of nighttime. Someone with noctiphobia may be unable to spend time in dark rooms or may need to have lights on inside their home at all times.
Noctiphobia is a type of specific phobia, meaning it is an enduring, overwhelming and irrational fear of a specific object, situation, place or person; in this case, an extreme fear of the night.
Someone with noctiphobia may go to extreme lengths to ensure that they are not outside at nighttime or are not exposed to the night in any way. This can be particularly difficult during the winter months when the reduced hours of daylight change what we often judge to be night and day.
The fear of night can be so strong that the individual refuses to leave their home or bedroom in the lead-up to and during the hours of darkness. This can have a significant impact on their ability to function normally in society; for example, they may find it difficult to hold down a job as their phobia means they cannot leave the house during the dark (which in winter can be as early as 3:30 pm).
It can also have a significant impact on their social life, as they are unable to engage in any activities or events that take place in the evening or at night.
A fear of the dark and a fear of night is particularly common during childhood and, consequently, this phobia is more common in children compared to adults. This is likely connected to the fear of the dark and children are often unable to separate their imagination from reality, for example, they may fear monsters or ghosts that appear at night. Although many children grow out of their fear of nighttime, in some cases, the symptoms of noctiphobia can worsen over time and this phobia can continue into adulthood. Noctiphobia can also manifest for the first time during adulthood.
However, it is important to note that not every child (or adult) who experiences a fear of the dark or is scared at nighttime is experiencing noctiphobia. A fear of night can occur on a spectrum, with some people experiencing more severe fear and anxiety than others.
To be classified as a phobia, your fear of nighttime should include:
- Feelings of intense fear, panic or anxiety that are difficult to manage.
- Fear or anxiety that is out of proportion to the true risk.
- A fear of the night that lasts for at least six months.
- Engaging in avoidance behaviours to prevent being outside at nighttime or seeing the darkness.
- A fear of the night that interferes with your day-to-day life, overall well-being or sense of safety.
A phobia of nighttime is thought to have an evolutionary basis. The lack of sight at nighttime makes it difficult for you to detect who or what is close to you, which can make it easier for predators to hide from you or make it more difficult for you to detect danger. Fear is designed to promote your survival and our ancestors who feared the dark and nighttime may have been more likely to survive, making humans predisposed to a fear of the dark.
Noctiphobia is an individualised condition, meaning that it manifests differently in different people. Some people with noctiphobia experience negative patterns of thought and negative feelings and behaviours in many situations related to nighttime, for example, they may be unable to spend time in dark rooms or go to places such as the cinema, whereas other people only experience symptoms if they go outside at nighttime.
Someone with noctiphobia can have many different fears related to the nighttime, for example:
- A fear of the dark – In the majority of cases, a fear of the night is connected to or occurs as a result of a fear of the dark. There are many reasons why someone is afraid of the dark, although it is most frequently connected to a fear of real or imagined dangers that could be hidden in the dark. Someone who fears the dark may not only have a phobia of the night but may also experience negative thoughts and feelings in relation to dark places, such as basements, garages and tunnels, and dark rooms.
- A fear of crime – Crimes, particularly violent crimes such as rape, murder and sexual assault, occur more frequently at nighttime compared to daytime. In fact, the peak time for murder is between midnight and 3 am. A fear of nighttime can stem from the fear of becoming a victim of a violent crime. Some people may stay home to reduce the likelihood of them becoming a victim of a crime. Fearing becoming the victim of a violent crime and developing a negative association between violence and the dark may be more likely in females, who are frequently told not to go outside in the dark.
- A fear of nighttime animals – Nighttime and the dark are frequently associated with animals such as wolves and bats and fictional animals such as werewolves. People are scared of animals for many reasons, such as the fear of being bitten or scratched or the fear that animals can transmit diseases and infections. Even if nocturnal animals are not commonly found where you live, you may also fear animals that aren’t typically nocturnal but that can’t be seen at night because it is dark, such as snakes and spiders.
- A fear of being unable to see – A lack of vision at night is another common reason why people develop noctiphobia. This may be more likely to occur in people who already have reduced vision or someone who has had a negative experience when they were unable to see at night. Humans instantly feel safer in situations where they are able to see, and this can result in someone developing a phobia of the night.
Although it is normal to experience some fear or anxiety at nighttime, particularly in situations where there is a level of risk, someone with noctiphobia will experience negative thoughts and feelings in situations where the night doesn’t pose a risk to them. Because phobias are irrational and the fear is disproportionate to the true risk, a phobia of the night can significantly impact your everyday life and result in you experiencing fear, anxiety and panic even in situations where there is no risk or danger.
In some cases, noctiphobia can be so severe that the individual is unable to leave their home because of the fear that they may get stuck somewhere and won’t be able to make it home before night falls. A fear of the night can be debilitating and can have a significantly negative impact on your life and well-being.
A phobia of the night can result in you experiencing extreme difficulties functioning normally or concentrating in certain places or situations. You may become consumed with thoughts of the night or with the fear that you may get stuck outside when night falls. The fear, anxiety and panic that you feel can have a significant impact on your mental and emotional well-being and your behaviour.
Your fear of the night can result in avoidance behaviours. You may go to extreme lengths to prevent being outside at night, for example, you may refuse to engage in any activities that take place in the afternoon or evening or may refuse to travel more than a few miles away from your home. However, it can be difficult to avoid the night entirely, particularly if you are not in control of your own working hours and don’t work from home.
Avoidance behaviours can make it difficult for you to perform everyday tasks or function normally in society. Although avoidance behaviours are designed to reduce the likelihood that you will be outside at night and that your phobia will be triggered, they can actually have a paradoxical effect, meaning that instead of helping you to manage or reduce your symptoms, avoiding places or situations where you could encounter nighttime can have the opposite effect and instead reinforce your fear and result in more severe symptoms in the future.
Avoidance behaviours can also negatively impact your social and professional life and your ability to perform day-to-day tasks.
Someone with noctiphobia may find that they are consumed with thoughts of the night or the fear that they may encounter the night. The fear and anxiety they experience can affect their mental and emotional well-being. Someone with noctiphobia may also find it extremely difficult to sleep and may experience insomnia, because of the fear that something could happen to them at night.
This can have a significant impact on their mental and physical health and can have consequences such as exhaustion, difficulties concentrating and functioning and the development of health conditions such as diabetes and heart disease.
Noctiphobia can be connected and occur in conjunction with other phobias, including:
How common is noctiphobia?
Because noctiphobia is a type of specific phobia, any diagnoses of this phobia fall under the diagnostic umbrella for specific phobias. This means there are no individual statistics available that portray how many people experience a phobia of the night.
However, a fear of the dark and, relatedly, a fear of nighttime is one of the most common fears experienced by children between the ages of 6 and 12 years old. It is thought that up to a third of all children experience a fear of the dark and of the night at some point, with many of them growing out of the fear before adolescence.
However, it is important to bear in mind that negative thoughts and feelings about nighttime often occur on a spectrum, ranging from mild fear and anxiety to severe fear, panic and anxiety that can impact your day-to-day life, affect your decision-making and result in avoidance behaviours of certain places and situations. It can be difficult to determine whether someone is scared of nighttime or whether they are experiencing a phobia, especially in children who may not be able to articulate their fear.
Similarly to many other phobias, statistics regarding noctiphobia are thought to be under-representative of the true figures, with diagnostic rates thought to be lower than the true figures.
There are many possible reasons why cases of noctiphobia may go undiagnosed, such as:
- The child may be expected to grow out of their fear.
- The child may not be able to articulate their fear to an adult.
- Many people have not heard of noctiphobia and may not realise that they (or their child) are experiencing a diagnosable medical condition.
- Many people are not aware that effective treatment options are available so may never seek a diagnosis.
- Avoidance behaviours may reduce the individual’s contact with nighttime, making their phobia seem more manageable.
- Someone with noctiphobia may be aware that their fear is irrational and may be embarrassed.
Who is at risk of noctiphobia?
Although anyone can develop noctiphobia, there are certain risk factors that can increase the likelihood of someone developing a phobia of nighttime.
These could include:
- Having a previous negative, scary or traumatic experience that occurred at nighttime or in the dark.
- Being a victim of or witnessing a violent crime.
- Previously or currently experiencing physical or sexual assault, abuse or violence or stalking or threatening behaviour.
- Having post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD).
- Having another related phobia, such as nyctophobia or scelerophobia.
- Having a history of anxiety, depression, panic attacks or another relevant mental health disorder.
- Having a close family member, such as a parent or sibling, with noctiphobia.
- Having a close family member, such as a parent or sibling, with another phobia.
- Being exposed to a fear of nighttime during childhood or adolescence.
- Being a naturally more anxious or nervous person.
- Experiencing a significant life stressor, having higher than usual stress levels or being in a heightened mental state (particularly if you are exposed to a fear of nighttime or have a negative experience involving the night during this time).
- Having a substance use disorder, such as an addiction to drugs or alcohol.
- Experiencing separation anxiety disorder (in children).
It is important to note that although the risk factors listed above increase the likelihood that someone could develop noctiphobia, they do not guarantee this. Someone with none of the above risk factors can develop noctiphobia unexpectedly, whereas someone with several of the above risk factors may never develop a fear of the night and may be comfortable being outside at nighttime throughout their life.
Although noctiphobia can occur at any age, it is notably more common in children, particularly if the child experiences a traumatic, scary or negative event at night or in the dark. Stress and trauma can result in feelings of anxiety and fear and can reduce a child’s ability to cope with certain situations. Children are also less able to manage the fear and anxiety that occurs as a result of the initial trauma and are less able to understand and rationalise any negative thoughts and feelings they are experiencing.
A child who experiences a significant trauma that didn’t take place at night or in the dark may also be more likely to develop noctiphobia as the increased anxiety or fear children often feel in the dark can make them fearful that the trauma will reoccur. For example, a child who has been abused may develop a fear of the night in case they are attacked or abused while they are asleep.
How to deal with noctiphobia
As well as treatments that are prescribed by a GP or a mental health specialist, some people find other effective strategies that help them manage their phobia and deal with their symptoms. These are known as coping and calming strategies and they can be effective in helping you to manage or reduce your symptoms and reduce the impact your phobia has on your day-to-day life, your health and your overall well-being.
Some coping and calming strategies are most effective when you engage in them long term, and it is recommended that they are implemented as part of your regular routine. They can help to reduce the frequency and severity of your symptoms over time and enable you to be exposed to night and darkness in the future without experiencing negative thoughts and feelings.
Other coping and calming strategies are most effective in the short term and are designed to be utilised in situations where you are faced with your triggers, or you feel your anxiety rising. Short-term strategies are designed to minimise or prevent any physiological, psychological or behavioural symptoms and to prevent a triggering situation from worsening and your negative thoughts and feelings from taking over.
Some of the most effective coping and calming strategies that can help you to manage your noctiphobia include:
- Understand your phobia – Understanding your phobia, including what initially caused you to develop a fear of the night and what your triggers are, can help you to manage your fear and anxiety more successfully. Understanding your fear allows you to deal with any negative thought processes, feelings and behaviours attached to your phobia and understand your triggers in more detail. This allows you to understand and rationalise your phobia, reduce your automatic fear response and reduce the frequency and severity of your symptoms.
- Desensitisation – Desensitisation draws on the principles of exposure therapy, and if done correctly, can be extremely effective in helping you to reduce your automatic fear response. It is important that desensitisation happens gradually, in an environment that you feel comfortable and safe in. You could begin with a situation that is only a little triggering and once you are comfortable, move on to something that creates more anxiety. Gradually desensitising yourself can prevent nighttime from triggering a reaction or can result in a less severe reaction in the future. This can reduce the impact your phobia has on your daily life and your well-being.
- Visualise overcoming your fear – Visualisation techniques can be extremely effective in helping you to overcome your phobia and any anxiety you are feeling. You should imagine yourself successfully confronting your fear and overcoming it and then imagine how this would make you feel and the ways in which it would change your life. Your brain usually cannot differentiate between thoughts and reality so visualising positive nighttime experiences can reassure your brain that there is no danger and that you can overcome your fear.
- Join a support group – Getting support from other people who have experienced similar fear and anxiety can be an effective way of overcoming your phobia. Support groups are usually run by professionals and are attended by people who have faced or overcome similar challenges to you. You can gain important information and advice from the sessions as well as have your thoughts and feelings validated and receive reassurance and empathy from other people in your group. You can choose to attend an in-person or online support group.
- Create a fear ladder – A fear ladder can help you to analyse and understand your fear of nighttime and can help you to identify which of your triggers creates more severe anxiety and panic than others. Because phobias are highly individualised, everyone’s fear ladder is different. An example fear ladder is shown below:
– 1 = Being outside at night.
– 2 = Sleeping alone at night.
– 3 = Sleeping without a light on.
– 4 = Hearing an owl hooting.
– 5 = Seeing the sun set.
– 6 = Being in a dark room.
Once you have created your fear ladder, you can then confront your triggers one at a time, starting at the bottom of the ladder (the trigger that results in the least phobic response). This can help you slowly deal with your phobia and the triggers that are worsening the symptoms of your phobia.
- Challenge negative thoughts and feelings – You may associate the night and the dark with negative thoughts or experiences, with increasing distress. You can prevent your fear from escalating by disrupting and challenging your negative thoughts and memories. Remind yourself that nighttime poses no danger to you and that your fear is irrational. If you begin to experience symptoms of noctiphobia, remind yourself that the feelings will soon pass, that your fear is disproportionate and that the dark isn’t going to hurt you.
- Avoid negative depictions or negative stories about nighttime – Horror films and scary stories are often set at night. TV shows or films that portray the dark negatively can validate and reinforce any negative connotations you have already associated with nighttime. Additionally, news stories or stories from friends and family that report violent crimes, such as sexual assault or murder, occurring at night can also exacerbate your phobia and cause you to experience more severe fear and anxiety. Avoid any triggering or negative depictions of nighttime to prevent your phobia from escalating.
- Practise mindfulness – Anxiety disorders, such as phobias, can be treated with mindfulness. Mindfulness can teach you how to focus your breathing and attention and reduce the likelihood that you will experience physical symptoms of your phobia. The practice of mindfulness can also help you manage stress and anxiety and be more in control of your body-mind connection.
- Practise yoga or meditation – By practising yoga or meditation, you can reduce or eliminate your anxiety and fear responses. When you are faced with your triggers, stress hormones are released, and a fight-or-flight response is triggered. Meditation and yoga can help you counteract the fight-or-flight response by achieving a highly relaxed state and reducing stress. Managing your body’s negative reaction to your triggers can also be achieved by controlling your breathing. As a result, you may experience fewer negative thoughts, feelings and responses when encountering nighttime in the future. You can improve the symptoms of your phobia long-term by practising daily.
- Learn deep breathing exercises – Deep breathing exercises can effectively help you manage or prevent the symptoms of your phobia if you encounter a trigger. Deep breathing prompts your brain to relax and calm down, which can help you to manage your anxiety. If you engage in deep breathing exercises every day, this can help you to effectively reduce your stress levels, relieve tension in your body and reduce your anxiety long term.
- Make lifestyle changes – Lifestyle factors such as lack of sleep, high levels of stress and a poor diet can exacerbate the symptoms of your phobia and increase your anxiety. By making lifestyle changes, you can reduce the impact your phobia of the night has on your life. Some lifestyle changes you can make include:
– Implement a successful sleep routine.
– Reduce your daily stress.
– Eat a healthy, balanced diet.
– Implement an exercise routine.
– Avoid caffeine, sugar and other stimulants.
What triggers noctiphobia?
Because noctiphobia manifests in different ways in different people, there are many possible triggers, and the triggers often vary from person to person. Some people with noctiphobia find that their phobia has only one trigger whereas other people find that their fear is triggered by multiple things, places and situations.
The types of triggers someone has and the number of different triggers they experience can vary depending on multiple factors, such as what initially caused their fear of nighttime, their perception of the potential risk, the severity of their symptoms and their current mental health and mindset.
The most common triggers for noctiphobia are:
- Going outside at nighttime.
- Looking out of their window at nighttime.
- Going outside their home in the afternoon or evening.
- The sun setting.
- Entering the winter season when there are fewer hours of daylight.
- Being in any room or place that is dark.
- Hearing the hooting of an owl.
- Seeing another nocturnal animal, such as a bat.
- Watching a video, TV show or film set in darkness or at night.
- Not having easy access to a light.
- Thinking about nighttime or remembering a previous experience at nighttime.
- Getting into your pyjamas or following another nighttime routine.
- Getting into bed.
- Leaving your home.
- Something covering your eyes and preventing you from seeing light, such as a blindfold, an eye mask or your clothes when you are getting undressed.
- Hearing about crimes that took place at night.
- Hearing a noise outside your home at night.
- Your car breaking down or public transport being delayed (even if it is during the day).
- Being invited to an event that takes place at night.
What are the symptoms of noctiphobia?
The symptoms of noctiphobia can differ significantly from person to person, as this phobia often manifests in different ways. The symptoms can be wide-ranging and extremely varied and are often automatic and uncontrollable. For example, it may feel like you are unable to control your own thoughts and feelings or prevent your phobia from taking over your body. The symptoms of noctiphobia can be psychological, physiological or behavioural.
The symptoms of noctiphobia can vary considerably in the way they manifest, how severe they are and how frequently they occur. Differences in the severity of symptoms, how frequently they occur, and their manifestation can occur for multiple reasons, such as how acute your phobia is, your triggers, your perception of the situation and your current mental health and mindset.
The symptoms of noctiphobia can occur at any time, including when you are outside at night, if you are faced with a trigger or if you think about or talk about nighttime. Although people can experience one-off or short-term symptoms of noctiphobia, to be classified as a phobia, you must experience symptoms for at least six months.
The most commonly occurring symptoms of noctiphobia are listed below.
The psychological symptoms of noctiphobia are the mental and emotional symptoms you experience when faced with a trigger or thinking about nighttime.
The most common psychological symptoms are:
- Overwhelming fear, anxiety or panic when faced with the dark, when it is nighttime or when you encounter another trigger.
- Significant sleep impairments as a result of being anxious about the night and/or the dark. This could include poor sleep or insomnia.
- Feelings of fear, anxiety or panic that are out of proportion to the risks.
- Being unable to control your fear, anxiety or panic even if you are aware that they are out of proportion to the risk.
- Being unusually stressed or agitated in triggering situations.
- Anticipatory anxiety in the lead-up to a triggering situation.
- A fear of the night that has lasted for a minimum of six months.
- Feeling an intense need to escape when in triggering situations.
- Feeling immobilised or frozen by your fear.
- Feeling like you are not in control or are about to lose control.
- Feeling defenceless or vulnerable.
- Depersonalisation or derealisation (where you feel like you no longer understand what is happening around you or you have lost touch with reality) which most likely happens at night.
- Having difficulties concentrating or functioning normally at night.
- Experiencing frequent or distressing nightmares about nighttime.
- Feeling like you are in danger or having a sense of impending doom as night approaches.
- Feeling like you are dying or are going to die at night.
Behavioural symptoms are any changes in your behaviour that occur as a result of your phobia of the night. The behaviours or behavioural changes will be negative or damaging or may be abnormal or unusual for you or society as a whole.
The most common behavioural symptoms of noctiphobia are:
- Avoiding any social or professional events that take place at nighttime or close to nighttime.
- Refusing to think about or talk about nighttime.
- Refusing to watch films or TV shows set at night.
- Staying away from windows at nighttime.
- Being unable to sleep without a light.
- Withdrawing from friends and family and social situations.
- Avoiding leaving the house at nighttime or at a time close to nighttime (such as afternoon or evening).
- Being unable to eat or having a lack of appetite during or in the lead-up to triggering situations.
- Refusing to go far from your home or refusing to leave your home completely.
- Being unable to stop thinking about nighttime or what could happen at night.
- Feeling like you want to run away or hide in triggering situations.
Physiological symptoms are the physical symptoms experienced by your body. They include physical disturbances or changes that affect your body. When you experience fear, anxiety or panic when faced with a trigger, your body triggers the fight-or-flight response, which is designed to help you fight off danger or run away from a threat. This causes the sympathetic nervous system to release stress hormones, such as adrenaline and cortisol, which cause physical symptoms.
The most common physiological symptoms of noctiphobia are:
- Breathing difficulties, for example, hyperventilating or rapid breathing.
- Feeling like you are unable to catch your breath.
- A fast heart rate, heart palpitations or feeling like your heart is pounding.
- Elevated blood pressure.
- Unusual or excessive sweating or clamminess.
- Shaking, trembling or chills.
- Pins and needles or a tingling sensation (particularly in your hands or feet).
- Chest pain or a tight feeling in your chest.
- A choking sensation, difficulties swallowing or feeling like something is stuck in your throat.
- Feeling dizzy or lightheaded.
- Feeling confused or disoriented.
- Pale or flushed skin, particularly in the face.
- Stomach pain, nausea, vomiting or an upset stomach.
- Feeling like you have butterflies in your stomach.
- Hot or cold flashes.
- Unusual sensitivity to hot or cold temperatures.
- Feeling unusually tired or exhausted.
- Muscle tension or stiffness in your muscles.
- Unusual pains or severe headaches.
- Having a dry or sticky mouth.
- Experiencing a panic attack.
Symptoms of noctiphobia in children:
Noctiphobia is more common in children compared to adults. However, although children can experience many of the same symptoms as adults, in some children (especially younger children) the symptoms of noctiphobia can manifest differently. This could be because children are less able to manage intense emotions, such as fear and anxiety, may be less able to rationalise and understand the way they are thinking and feeling and may be less constrained or less likely to hide the way they are feeling.
Some of the most common symptoms of noctiphobia in children are:
- Refusing to sleep alone or without a nightlight.
- Crying, screaming or having a tantrum.
- Lashing out by hitting or kicking people or objects that are close to them.
- Trying to run away or hide.
- Clinging to a parent, guardian or another safe person.
- Showing signs of extreme anxiety, fear or panic.
What causes noctiphobia?
Because everyone’s experience of noctiphobia is different, there are many possible causes of this phobia. It is an individualised phobia that can be triggered in many different ways. Some people with noctiphobia can identify one clear cause of their phobia, whereas other people developed a phobia because of multiple factors.
Some people with noctiphobia are unable to pinpoint when and why they developed a phobia of the night, especially if their phobia developed a long time ago (such as during childhood) or their symptoms manifested slowly over time.
Identifying the root cause of your phobia can be extremely beneficial and can help you treat your phobia and overcome your fear more successfully. Identifying the causes of your phobia allows you to address the initial triggers and any negative or harmful patterns of thought and the associated feelings and behaviours that are attached to it. Identifying what caused your phobia can make it easier to manage or reduce your symptoms and reduce the impact your phobia has on your life.
The causes of noctiphobia can vary from person to person. The causes can be psychological, societal, evolutionary or environmental.
The most common causes of noctiphobia are:
- A negative, scary, traumatic or painful experience that occurred at night – This is the most common cause of noctiphobia and is also known as traumatic conditioning or a direct learning experience. This experience may not seem traumatic to other people and there may or may not have been real danger involved; however, as long as the person involved felt real fear or distress at this time, the experience can trigger noctiphobia. A traumatic experience is more likely to lead to a phobia if it occurred during childhood or during a stressful or vulnerable time in your life. Some examples of a traumatic experience include:
– Being attacked or abused at night.
– Someone breaking into your home at night.
– Being attacked by a nocturnal animal.
– Becoming trapped in a dark place.
Following the traumatic experience, you may begin to have intrusive and negative thoughts or memories of the trauma and begin to avoid trauma-related triggers, for example, by refusing to be alone at night or refusing to sleep. This can cause the fear or anxiety you felt at the time of the experience to linger or worsen and can lead to you developing a phobia.
- Currently or previously experiencing sexual, physical or emotional abuse, assault or violence – A traumatic experience or experiences such as abuse, assault or violence that occurred during childhood or adulthood can result in someone developing noctiphobia. This could be because the event took place at night or in the dark or because they feel particularly vulnerable at night when everything is dark and other people are asleep and cannot help them. Whether the abuse or assault was a one-off experience or a repetitive event, someone who experienced this can fear feeling vulnerable or defenceless in the future. They may also begin to fear the night in case they have nightmares of the abuse.
- Currently experiencing stalking, threatening behaviour or bullying – Similarly to someone who experienced abuse, someone who experiences stalking, threatening behaviour or bullying may begin to experience noctiphobia as they do not want to feel vulnerable or defenceless. They may fear that they are more likely to be attacked at night when they cannot see who is around them.
- The startle response – A fear of nighttime and the dark can be triggered by the startle response in your brain, which is a defensive response to what we perceive to be threatening stimuli. The startle response causes your brain to release chemicals that heighten your feelings of anxiety and your perception of danger. If the startle response was previously triggered at night, for example, if something jumped out and scared you, this can create a future negative association between nighttime and danger which can result in you developing noctiphobia.
- Evolutionary factors – As mentioned earlier, there is thought to be an evolutionary basis for a phobia of the night and of the dark, because the dark posed a risk to our ancestors. Being unable to see who or what was around them made our ancestors particularly vulnerable to attacks from predators. People who were wary of or afraid of the dark were more likely to have stayed in a safe place at night and stayed away from danger. Because fear is designed to promote survival, humans who were afraid of the night may have been more likely to survive and humans may have evolved to be predisposed to a fear of the dark and of the night.
- Fear rumination – Fear rumination is a common cause of phobias and usually occurs following a negative experience that occurred at nighttime. Following the negative experience, you may have engaged in repetitive negative thought processes and persistently and repeatedly recapped the traumatic, scary, negative or painful experience. Over time, these thoughts and memories can become increasingly upsetting and intrusive and can make you remember the event as being worse than it was in reality. Fear rumination reinforces your natural fear responses, creates additional anxiety and can result in you developing noctiphobia.
- A learned phobia – Also known as an observational learning experience, a learned phobia usually means you observed a fear of the night in another person and learnt to be scared of nighttime yourself. You are more likely to learn a phobia if you are exposed to it during childhood or adolescence; for example, children who grow up with a close family member, such as a parent or sibling, with noctiphobia are more likely to develop the condition themselves. However, a learned phobia can also develop during adulthood.
- Negative depictions of nighttime – Exposure to negative portrayals of nighttime and the dark can result in a phobia, particularly if the exposure occurs during childhood or during a vulnerable or stressful time in your life. In films and TV shows, the night is often used as a setting for something that is spooky, scary or dangerous. It is also frequently associated with Halloween and even child-friendly films and cartoons will set scary scenes at night. Exposure to these negative portrayals can cause someone to view nighttime as being dangerous and result in them being afraid that something bad could happen to them at night. This can then result in them developing a phobia of the night.
- An informational learning experience – Being exposed to information about the night that scares you or creates feelings of anxiety can contribute to you developing a phobia of nighttime. For example, learning about the number of violent crimes that happen at night or the number of people who die at night can cause you to experience anxiety surrounding nighttime, which can then develop into a phobia.
- Experiencing significant or higher than usual stress levels – Significant, long-term stress can result in a disproportionate fear response or an inability to manage intense situations. This can make it more likely that you will develop a phobia, such as noctiphobia, particularly if you have a negative experience at night or are exposed to the fear of the night while experiencing higher levels of stress. A stressful or distressing event, such as a death, can also trigger a phobia, as you may be less able to manage your emotions and thought processes when experiencing grief, which can result in a disproportionate fear response.
How is noctiphobia diagnosed?
If you think you or your child is experiencing symptoms of noctiphobia, your first step should be to visit your GP. Your GP will ask questions about your symptoms and will likely look at your medical history. They may also do a physical examination and ask about any medications or supplements you are taking, to ensure your symptoms cannot be attributed to anything else. If your GP thinks you could be experiencing noctiphobia, they will then make a referral to a psychologist or another mental health professional.
To gain more information about your symptoms and your thoughts, feelings and behaviours surrounding nighttime, the psychologist will conduct a phobia questionnaire.
They will also ask for more information about your fear, such as:
- The type of symptoms you experience, how frequently they occur and how severe they are.
- The initial onset of your phobia, including when your symptoms first began and what initially triggered your fear of the night.
- Your medical history, including whether you are currently or have previously had any anxiety disorders, panic disorders, phobias or other mental health conditions.
- Whether you have a family history of phobias.
- How much your fear interferes with your day-to-day life, your well-being and your behaviour.
Because noctiphobia is a type of specific phobia, to make a diagnosis, your doctor will compare your symptoms to the diagnostic criteria for specific phobias.
Your symptoms will need to correspond with the seven key criteria listed below.
1. The fear must be persistent, excessive and unreasonable. It can occur either at night or at other times.
2. Exposure to the night, darkness or another trigger leads to an immediate anxiety response in the majority of situations.
3. The fear is excessive and disproportionate to the threat, and this is recognised by the individual.
4. The individual avoids places or situations where they could be exposed to the dark or nighttime. If they are exposed to darkness, the individual will experience extreme fear, anxiety or distress.
5. The anticipation of night and of encountering darkness and the avoidance behaviours associated with avoiding darkness can have a significant impact on the individual’s day-to-day life.
6. The fear has lasted for a minimum of six months.
7. The phobia is not associated with another disorder or mental health condition.
If your symptoms fit the diagnostic criteria, you will be diagnosed with noctiphobia. Depending on the severity of your phobia, you may then be offered treatment.
How is noctiphobia treated?
Once you have received a diagnosis of noctiphobia, you may then be offered treatment. There are several successful treatment options available. However, not everyone with noctiphobia requires treatment. If your symptoms are mild, your fear of the night doesn’t impact your daily life or well-being or you have already implemented successful coping strategies, then formal treatment may not be required. However, you should always consult your doctor before making any treatment decisions.
However, many people with noctiphobia will find treatment to be beneficial. Medical intervention for people with noctiphobia is usually extremely effective, with treatments working successfully in an estimated 90% of cases. If your phobia is frequently triggered, if you find yourself changing your behaviour at night, if your symptoms are severe, if your phobia negatively impacts your life or if your phobia affects your sleep routine, then treatment will likely be recommended.
Because there are multiple treatment options for noctiphobia, your psychologist will create a treatment plan that is specifically designed to treat your phobia.
Your treatment plan will be based on several factors, such as:
- The severity of your symptoms.
- The frequency of your symptoms.
- The root cause of your phobia.
- How significantly your phobia impacts your life.
The most common treatments for noctiphobia are:
Exposure therapy, also known as systematic desensitisation, involves gradual and repetitive exposure to your triggers and anxiety-inducing situations in a safe and controlled environment. The aim is that through gradual exposure, you can alter or reduce your fear response so that the night or the dark no longer trigger a fear response.
Exposure therapy takes place over multiple sessions, with more severe or complex phobias requiring a higher number of sessions. You will be required to talk about your fear, visualise your fear and be exposed to real triggering situations. Exposure will take place slowly, in escalating phases. You will begin by being exposed to the triggers that create the lowest amount of anxiety, for example, watching a video set at nighttime. Once you are comfortable with this level of exposure, you will move on to the next situation.
With each exposure, you should experience progressively lower anxiety and you will gradually build up to the most anxiety-inducing situations. The aim is that you can eventually be in the dark, go outside at night and sleep normally without experiencing a negative fear response.
By creating realistic thoughts and beliefs surrounding the night, unlearning negative associations and patterns of thought, decreasing negative reactions and feelings towards nighttime long term, and learning relaxation techniques and coping and calming strategies, exposure therapy can help you overcome your phobia.
Cognitive Behavioural Therapy (CBT):
CBT is a type of psychotherapy, commonly called talk therapy. It is designed to help you understand your fear and change the way you respond to your fear of the night. CBT aims to help you understand your phobia and the underlying cause of your fear and any negative thought patterns that are contributing to your phobia.
CBT can help you to identify negative thought patterns and feelings of fear and anxiety and replace them with more positive or realistic thoughts. It teaches you techniques that are designed to help you reduce your fear and anxiety and identify connections between negative patterns of thought, negative feelings and triggering situations.
During the sessions, you will identify negative thoughts and memories and deconstruct them into small pieces, which can then be focused on individually. This can help you to change the way you think, feel and respond to your triggers and eliminate any negative connections you have between night and fear or danger.
During your CBT sessions, you will:
- Discuss your triggers and symptoms.
- Explore what caused your fear of the night.
- Learn how to recognise your negative thoughts and change the way you are thinking.
- Learn coping strategies and calming strategies, such as deep breathing exercises, distraction techniques and coping statements.
Clinical hypnotherapy can be an effective way to help you rethink your fear of the night and repattern any negative thought processes. During the sessions, the hypnotherapist will use a combination of guided relaxation techniques and focused attention to place you into a deeply relaxed state. You will then discuss your phobia, particularly the root cause of your fear and any negative thoughts you have attached to your triggers.
Hypnotherapy helps you to gain a better understanding of your fear and repattern your existing negative thoughts regarding the night. You will work to understand any negative thoughts, memories, feelings and behaviours that are contributing to your phobia. Your hypnotherapist will also teach you calming strategies, to help you cope with triggering situations more effectively.
If your phobia results in sleeping difficulties, such as difficulties falling asleep or staying asleep, you may be recommended medications that can help you improve your sleep. This could include melatonin supplements or other sleep medication.
Medications such as anti-anxiety medication or anti-depressants may also be prescribed if you are experiencing another mental health condition alongside your phobia. Medication is not usually used as a sole treatment option for phobias and may instead be prescribed alongside another treatment, such as CBT.