Scotophobia is a persistent fear of the dark that extends beyond the normal developmental anxiety experienced by many young children. Also known as nyctophobia, this anxiety disorder can make it difficult for patients to navigate dark environments and may create feelings of fear that make it difficult to engage in regular tasks. A chef, for example, might be afraid to enter a walk-in refrigerator because of the dim conditions, or a janitor might not be able to enter an unlit building. Treatment is available to address scotophobia and help the patient lead a more normal life.
Many children experience some fear of the dark while growing up. This is an example of a normal developmental fear which should fade over time as children learn that the dark is not dangerous. In some children, teasing may increase fear of the dark and could cause it to develop into a phobia, partly because the child might become anxious about being mocked. Some people develop phobias because they experience traumatic experiences in the dark, or hear about upsetting events that took place in dark environments. Intense media coverage of a brutal murder, for example, could have an effect on viewers.
In people with scotophobia, being in dark places can be intolerable. They may develop a racing heart, cold sweat, nausea, and other symptoms of extreme anxiety. Furthermore, they can also be anxious about their scotophobia, which can mean that they get worried during conversations about the dark, or in situations where the lights could be turned off. For example, if a professor plans to use slides during lectures, a student might get upset at the thought of a darkened lecture hall.
Psychotherapy can help people with scotophobia. A mental health care provider can explore the phobia with the patient in a safe environment to determine why it started, which can sometimes help address the fear. Treatments like regular talk therapy and medications help some patients address their underlying fears. A child may have developed a fear of the dark as a result of transference after the death of a parent, for example, and processing this could resolve the issue.
Systematic desensitization is another approach to phobia therapy that can benefit some patients. In this treatment, the care provider works with the patient in a controlled environment. They might start by talking about darkness, looking at videos of dark environments, and working in an increasingly dark room. Over the course of multiple sessions, the patient might eventually be able to feel comfortable in the dark with the therapist, which could lead to more confidence in real world situations.