Achluophobia (Fear of the Dark)

Medically Reviewed By William C. Lloyd III, MD, FACS
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What is achluophobia?

Phobias are a type of anxiety disorder. They are extreme, persistent and overwhelming fear of an animal, object, person, activity, environment or situation. The fear is out of proportion because the trigger of the phobia presents little or no real danger. People with phobias usually know their fear is excessive, but can’t control it or overcome it. Achluophobia is fear of the dark. ‘Achluo’ is Greek for darkness and ‘phobia’ means fear. It is one of hundreds of phobias that affect millions of Americans.

Achluophobia is a simple phobia, meaning it is specific to the environment of darkness. Other environmental conditions do not trigger it. Simple or specific phobias are the most common type of phobia. According to the American Psychiatric Association (APA), up to 9% of the American population has a simple phobia.

Achluophobia causes an intense, irrational and lasting fear of darkness or being in the dark. Even the thought of being in the dark can trigger fear. It’s a common phobia in children.

What are the symptoms of achluophobia?

Achluophobia symptoms can range from mild to severe and even disabling. Like other phobias, symptoms can include both mental and physical reactions, in this case to darkness. The physical symptoms are manifestations of anxiety. They are typical of a ‘fight-or-flight’ response.

Common physical symptoms of achluophobia include:

  • Crying, clinginess or tantrums in children

Other symptoms of achluophobia include:

  • Avoidance of darkness or complete darkness
  • Dread at the prospect of darkness coming
  • Guilt or shame about being afraid of the dark
  • Panic at being in the dark or even thinking about the darkness
  • Strong desire to get out of the dark

Fear of the dark may simply be an annoyance, but the phobia can become disruptive. If it starts to interfere with normal daily functioning, see your doctor promptly. Addressing the phobia early often results in more satisfactory outcomes.

What causes achluophobia?

The exact cause of phobias, including achluophobia, is unclear. It’s likely an interplay of genetics and environmental factors. Sometimes, people can link their fear of the dark to a specific negative experience. In this case, the fear involves an area of the brain called the amygdala. This tiny region records reactions to experiences. When something particularly scary occurs in the dark, the amygdala remembers it. Then, it reminds you of the scariness when you encounter darkness or a similar situation.

Many times, however, there is no specific experience a person can identify. Researchers believe personality traits and temperament may play a role. These traits may be inherited. People may also learn to fear the dark from others in their family. So, it can be hard to tell whether phobias are indeed inherited or learned behavior.

What are the treatments for achluophobia?

Fear of the dark tends to affect children the most. Like other childhood fears, most people eventually outgrow them. It’s important not to see fear of the dark as weakness or tease a child about it. These attitudes often make the problem worse and cause more shame and guilt. While it’s easy to see fear of the dark as silly, it is quite real and overwhelming to the person experiencing the phobia. Getting help early in the course of the phobia often offers the best resolution of the fear.

Doctors recommend treatment when fear of the dark affects your ability to live and function normally. The most effective achluophobia treatments are forms of psychotherapy including:

  • Cognitive behavior therapy helps you or your child learn to identify and change unhealthy thoughts and emotions to change behavior. A therapist will guide you through the process of confronting your fear and changing your beliefs about your fear. The goal is to gain confidence in yourself instead of letting fear of the dark overwhelm you. Therapists often use this technique in combination with exposure therapy.
  • Exposure therapy involves gradually and repeatedly facing your fear of the dark. Another name for this approach is desensitization therapy. A therapist will help you through controlled situations involving darkness. It may start with just thinking about being in the dark. You will practice anxiety-reducing strategies until you master your fear. Then, your therapist will gradually expose you to more intense situations. The goal is to reach a place where fear of the dark doesn’t control you or limit your ability to function.

In some cases, doctors also use medications for a short period of time to help reduce symptoms. However, long-lasting relief relies on effective psychotherapy. Medications are often more useful for temporary situations, such as fear of flying.

When fear of the dark is severe, it can be devastating. Complications include:

  • Mood disorders. People with phobias have a higher risk of anxiety and depression.
  • Social isolation. Children who fear the dark may withdraw from peers due to shame about the fear. This can lead to loneliness and even academic problems.
  • Substance abuse. People may try to manage their fear with alcohol or drugs, which can lead to abuse and addiction.
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Medical Reviewer: William C. Lloyd III, MD, FACS
Last Review Date: 2020 Sep 21
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THIS TOOL DOES NOT PROVIDE MEDICAL ADVICE. It is intended for informational purposes only. It is not a substitute for professional medical advice, diagnosis or treatment. Never ignore professional medical advice in seeking treatment because of something you have read on the site. If you think you may have a medical emergency, immediately call your doctor or dial 911.
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