Many children find it impossible to sleep without a light on, but the darkness also raises all sorts of issues for many adults, too. What’s behind this prolonged fear, and – beyond a night light – is there anything that can help?
First of all: Accept your fear. It’s completely normal. After all, it is unsettling to not be able to see your surroundings properly, or at all.
“It is a naturally conditioned reflex to become afraid, ” says psychiatrist Katharina Domschke from Freiburg University Hospital in southern Germany.
Unfortunately, for some it doesn’t always remain a temporary feeling of unease, but develops into an exaggerated fear.
“In extreme cases, those affected have had bad experiences in the dark, ” says Professor Stephan Bender, a child clinical psychiatrist from Cologne University Hospital, “for example, abuse or violence.”
Sometimes the fear of darkness has an apparently harmless trigger, such as a film in which horror scenes are shown in the dark. It’s also possible for children to develop a fear of the dark because their parents are afraid.
In some cases, the fear goes so far that sufferers leave the lights on all night. “Behind this can be the fear of sleep because you lose control of what is happening around you while you are asleep, ” says Professor Bender.
The dread of having a bad dream can also prompt people to keep the light on at night, because those affected want to quickly find their way back into reality when they wake.
But the people who suffer from these fears don’t have to just put up with them. There are many things they can do to help themselves, including autogenic training (teaching your body to respond to verbal commands) or other relaxation exercises.
“Embrace the darkness and make friends with it, ” says Domschke. “Try stepping out onto the balcony in the dark, gather yourself and try to find something positive in the gloom.”
She suggests picking out sounds that you perceive as pleasant – such as the gentle rustling of leaves – or looking up at the stars in the night sky and taking a few moments to appreciate how beautiful they are.
“Don’t rush it, ” says Professor Bender. “Approach things slowly and celebrate your successes.”
He suggests opening your bedroom door at night and switching on the hallway light, if this is comfortable for you. To begin with, keep the bedroom door wide open, then gradually close it over a period of days or weeks.
In the first stage of self-help the door can be wide open, in the second half-open, then ajar, and at some point – perhaps after several weeks – it can be closed so that you can only see the light below through the gap around the door frame. Soon after, you’ll be able to cope with no light at all.
You might find it helpful to write down your successes in a diary so that you can read them whenever you need to and remind yourself that it is possible to endure the darkness. Another option is to listen to CDs designed by experts on how to cope with fears before going to bed.
However, self-therapy has its limits. If you have a profound fear of the dark, you may need the help of a therapist. Professor Bender recommends seeking professional help from a psychologist or psychiatrist “if the level of suffering is high and your quality of life is severely impaired”. – dpa/Sabine Meuter