Fear of the dark (scotophobia): what it is and how to overcome

“Fear of the Dark” is not only the title of an Iron Maiden song (Fear of Dark), but it is a phobic disorder that can cause great discomfort to the person who suffers from it. It is also known as scotophobia, although it is often associated with fear at night or nictophobia..

In this article, we review the main features of this phenomenon and explore its causes, symptoms and treatment.

What is the irrational fear of the dark

Scotophobia is the irrational and extreme fear of darkness. Like phobia, belongs to the group of anxiety disorders and its main symptoms are extreme anxiety and irrational fear of the phobic stimulus. It involves avoiding situations and places where there is darkness, and the person may experience discomfort just thinking about it. Dark, lightless spaces are situations that can create a certain level of alertness or activation in the person, but do not necessarily create terror. Some people suffer from panic attacks in these contexts, so they tend to avoid any situation like this.

It is common to see children fearful of the dark, largely because of the images that can be seen in movies, such as night and darkness they often manifest – ghosts or monsters in fantasy stories. . however, in the case of adults, this fear is not that common, and when it does occur, it should be treated by a specialist.

This condition can have a significant impact on the daily life of the person who suffers from it, mainly because the individual tends to be depressed, anxious or very nervous all the time. Each day of our life grows darker, so the discomfort manifests itself over and over again. Affected people often refuse to leave their homes when it is dark or are unable to sleep on their own despite their age if they suffer from scotophobia.

What are the causes of this phobia

The main cause of this phobia is in irrational beliefs about the dark, and as I said, fueled by fantastic stories that often appear in books or movies, but also by popular beliefs.

however, most phobias usually develop as a result of a traumatic experience in childhood, And goes through a type of associative learning called classical conditioning. This type of conditioning was first studied by American psychologist John Watson, who taught a little child named Albert to be afraid of a white rat he adored.

You can see this experience in the video below:

Phobias, moreover, can develop for other reasons. One of them is vicarious conditioning, which is a type of learning by observing. We explain it in our article: “Vicarious conditioning: how does this type of learning work?”.

Some authors also claim that people are biologically predisposed to suffer from this type of fear, because this emotion has an adaptive function that has allowed the human species to survive the passage of centuries. For this reason, irrational fear is complex and sometimes difficult to overcome because it does not respond to logical arguments. It is a primitive association and not a cognitive one.

Symptoms of scotophobia

This phobia causes a number of symptoms which can be cognitive, behavioral or physical and physiological.

Cognitive symptoms include fear, anxiety, anxiety, confusion, irrational beliefs, or inattention.. When it comes to behavioral symptoms, the person tends to avoid the phobic stimulus in an attempt to reduce the discomfort.

The physical and physiological symptoms include:

  • dry mouth
  • muscle tension
  • extreme sweating
  • Increased breathing
  • suffocation
  • Shortness of breath
  • Lack of appetite
  • Stomach pain
  • Headache


Although it is disabling and creates great discomfort, this phobia is curative. Psychologists face irrational fears on a daily basis and, according to research, psychological therapy has a high degree of effectiveness in the treatment of these anxiety disorders.

There are different schools of therapy and different methodologies for dealing with psychological issues, but for treating phobias, cognitive behavioral therapy is very effective, using cognitive therapy and behavioral therapy techniques.

Some of the most used for this type of disorder are relaxation techniques and exposure techniques. However, the technique par excellence and the most effective is systematic desensitization.

This technique combines relaxation and exposure techniques, and helps the patient to gradually expose himself to the phobic stimulus while learning tools to deal with the best possible situations with which he is afraid.

other treatments

However, there are other forms of treatment that are used and with great results: hypnosis, mindfulness-based cognitive therapy, or acceptance and commitment therapy are a few examples. The latter two belong to what is called third-generation therapies, which focus on the patient’s relationship with their problem, context and acceptance.

Drug therapy is also used, but only in severe cases, And always in combination with psychological therapy to ensure that the results are maintained in the long term.

Applications to treat phobias

The emergence of new technologies in recent decades has also affected the treatment of phobias.. In fact, virtual reality and augmented reality are ideal for the patient to be exposed to the phobic stimulus without needing to face it. In addition, the exhibition takes place in a controlled environment.

But the treatment of phobias has even reached smartphones as there are different apps aimed at helping people overcome their irrational fears.

  • You can find out more about these applications in our article: “8 applications to treat phobias and fears of your smartphone”

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