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Nyctophobia: Its Origins and Development

written by: kmjones • edited by: Paul Arnold • updated: 7/22/2010

Derived from the Greek word for night "nyx" and fear "phobos", nyctophobia is a phobia of the night or darkness. Sometimes known as scotophobia, lygophobia and achluophobia, there has been little research conducted on the origins of nyctophobia.

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    Symptoms of Nyctophobia

    People with nyctophobia may exhibit a range of emotional and psychological symptoms such as:

    • Shortness of breath or "air hunger"
    • Chest pain or discomfort
    • Sensations of choking or being smothered
    • Dizziness or vertigo
    • Sweating
    • Palpitations
    • Faintness
    • Fear of dying or losing control

    Some behavioural symptoms may include:

    • Refusal to enter or sleep in a dark room
    • Carrying around a flashlight or matches
    • Inability to cope during nighttime

    At its worst, nyctophobia can impact on a person's quality of life and seriously disrupt their daily routines, often resulting in depression. People with nyctophobia may spend most of their day anticipating the night. Such high levels of anxiety can lead to panic attacks.

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    Causes of Nyctophobia

    As with many other phobias, the origins of nyctophobia develop in early childhood. Research has shown that 90% of children have at least one specific fear and a fear of the darkness or the night is very common. It tends to manifest around the age of 3 years old and, as with other natural environment phobias, such as those of storms or deep water, and reaches its peak around the age of 7 years old.

    There are many potential causes of nyctophobia and, with limited research on the phobia, it is impossible to be exact. Humans appear to be genetically programmed to be cautious of situations such as darkness, in case potential danger lurks. It is possible that this is a contributory factor to developing nyctophobia.

    Sometimes the origin of nyctophobia is the result of a traumatic experience, child abuse or even watching too many horror movies. Nyctophobia, as with other phobias, can also be passed down from parents (Fryer et al, 1990) or be caused by continual warnings about its potential danger (Ost, 1985).

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    Adults and Nyctophobia

    Without a larger body of scientific research into the origins of nyctophobia it is difficult to understand why adults develop the phobia. But if left untreated, intense childhood fears of darkness or nighttime can persist into adulthood. Negative memories of the dark that persist from these early years, or an unresolved traumatic experience may exacerbate feelings of fear.

    Social and cultural factors may play a role in the prevalence of nyctophobia in adults. Traditional models of masculinity, for example, may prevent men from openly discussing and admitting their fears of darkness, and, therefore, men may be more likely to develop nyctophobia. As women are encouraged to express themselves, they tend to appear highly in reported cases and are more likely to seek professional help.

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    A Final Word

    If left untreated, nyctophobia can become a serious and debilitating illness, characterised by intense anxiety and overwhelming fear. Being scared of the dark is often a normal feature of childhood, but, in some cases, this natural worry can spiral out of control. The key is to recognise when a fear has gone too far and to intervene with professional help as soon as possible.