I never grew out of fear of the dark.
September 6, 2012 11:26 AM   Subscribe

I am an adult with fear of the dark, along with other anxiety problems. I hate driving in the dark, even on streets with streetlights (I even hesitate to ride in the car at night) and feel panicky in dark rooms. I sleep with a nightlight, but wish it didn't feel like a necessity, and with fall coming, I dread the long nights ahead. Beyond therapy (which I have tried for my other problems and cannot currently afford) are there any methods of coping with this?
posted by juniper to Health & Fitness (18 answers total) 1 user marked this as a favorite
This book has lots of useful phobia strategies.
posted by Sidhedevil at 11:36 AM on September 6, 2012 [1 favorite]

Obviously, this isn't an option for everyone, but I only learned to relax in bed in a dark house after my family got a large dog. My fear was generally that there might be someone in the house who shouldn't be, and our dog would get up at the slightest noise and go investigate. After years of living with her, I found myself able to fall asleep easily even if I was totally alone in the dark.
posted by needs more cowbell at 11:37 AM on September 6, 2012 [1 favorite]

My fear of the dark was hugely relaxed when I got a cat (not unlike needs more cowbell's solution). I used to FREAK OUT at night. Every bump and creek and tap would have me out of my mind and sleeping with all the lights on, not just a night light. And was a light sleeper, so I heard Every. Single. Thing. Then I got a cat and could just pass off all the sounds as "Oh, that's just the cat getting in to something" and forget about it. Even if I knew she was sleeping in bed with me at the time, somehow I could just attribute the noise to her somehow and I'd be fine. I didn't adopt her for that purpose. Just a surprise side effect of owning a kitty.

This won't help with your other fearful dark scenarios, but for sleeping sans nightlight, a pet may be the ticket.
posted by PuppetMcSockerson at 11:42 AM on September 6, 2012 [1 favorite]

I'm the same way, although having cats has definitely helped have something to blame for the odd bumps and creaks after dark. Do you feel you're afraid of unspecified creepy things in the dark, or is it more a claustrophobic "the night is closing in"?

How about leaving a light on in another room, or the hallway? That way there's a bit of a dim glow, but it won't disturb your sleep as much as a nightlight in the same room might.

I say goodnight out loud to the house and all its previous inhabitants and ask them politely to let me sleep. It's a bit silly, but I find it comforting.
posted by vickyverky at 12:24 PM on September 6, 2012

Seconding a dog. I have a whole raft of anxiety issues, and I sleep much better with my dog around. (Even when she's snoring in my ear.) I logic myself out of it by thinking, okay, if there is a problem, the dog will alert me. It helps that she's a Boxer, and while they're known for being total goofass clowns, the breed is also known for being good watchdogs.

Sometimes I'll wake up and hear something, then poke her and tell her to listen (this is one of the commands we've worked out, "what's that?" means she looks and listens) and she'll scan for anything unusual. Ninety-nine times out of a hundred she'll roll her eyes at me and we both go back to sleep. The other time there was an animal scuffling around under the bathtub.

The problem here is that you - if you're me - switch from a fear of sounds/strangers/dark/whatever to a reliance on dogs. I do not sleep as well without my dog. And when I am staying with friends, I ask for (and often get) their dogs, because I have trained myself to believe that Dog means Safe, whether it's a 60lb Boxer or a 10lb terrier.
posted by cmyk at 12:28 PM on September 6, 2012

Apartment living is a great cure for this. You always know that there's someone else in the building--even if it's dark, you're not alone.

I used to think it was just a me-being-a-kid-thing since my fear of the dark stopped in adulthood. But when I visit home (my parents' house), I get scared turning the lights off downstairs if I'm home by myself. Not so when I'm in my own apartment! Even if I technically live alone, I have plenty of same-building neighbors there to "protect" me.
posted by phunniemee at 12:29 PM on September 6, 2012 [1 favorite]

Perhaps you could consider trying to apply to yourself some of the standard techniques a cognitive-behavioral therapy for a circumscribed, specific phobia would employ? Specifically, I'm thinking about systematic desensitization.

Simply put, in systematic desensitization the patient first learns some strategies with which to cope with fear/anxiety generally (e.g., relaxation training, focusing on breathing, meditation, cognitive reappraisal of threat). The patient would also develop a hierarchy of phobic stimuli, ranging from mild to severe situations that would trigger the phobia for them. (So, maybe "sitting in your work office with the light off" might be the floor and "sitting alone at home in the dark in the middle of the night" might be the ceiling). Armed with XYZ coping strategies and usually with the therapist (maybe a friend in this instance) as a supportive companion, you then try to expose yourself to triggering situations that gradually increase in intensity, while pairing them XYZ coping strategies. The idea is that the general phobia will gradually extinguish and newer, less maladaptive associations to the phobic stimuli will form as you are working your way up the hierarchy. You start with the most tolerable phobic situation to get your "foot in the door"/practice the techniques, and optimistically work all the way up to your most frightening phobic situation (after having conquered several more minor situations). This is supposed to happen essentially through minimizing your anxiety during exposure as much as possible by using the coping strategies (slowly diminishing the association between phobic thing and panic) and by sheer exposure without negative consequence from the phobic thing itself (teaching yourself/your lizard brain that the phobic thing really isn't a threat). It's based on principles of classical and operant conditioning (think Pavlov's dogs or the birds getting trained to peck at buttons).

This sort of thing might be better described in the book that Sidhedevil recommended above.
posted by Keter at 12:58 PM on September 6, 2012 [1 favorite]

As more of a band-aid, if random noises and such in the dark are also a contributor to your sleeping situation (in addition to the dark itself), maybe consider investing in a noisemaking machine to provide white noise to smother all of the apartment/house creaking out?
posted by Keter at 1:02 PM on September 6, 2012

I wouldn't worry about a nightlight. They're absolutely a necessity in my house when getting up for a drink of water or finding the bathroom without falling over a dog, or a dog toy, or the cat.

Really, everyone should have one of these in the hall or bathroom. You can rest assured they'd be handy in a bedroom, too.
posted by BlueHorse at 1:24 PM on September 6, 2012 [1 favorite]

Anti-anxiety meds. They won't cure anything, but they can really take the edge off things, while you work through Sidhedevil's book.
posted by IAmBroom at 1:54 PM on September 6, 2012

Anti anxiety meds, cats (good company, can detect any putative ghosts), holding onto a transitional object, turning on the TV. I also found that my fear of the dark decreased a lot after seven seasons of Buffy - really, no kidding.

Generally , I accept that I'm afraid of the dark and I don't resist it. I wouldn't consider sleeping without a nightlight.
posted by tel3path at 3:22 PM on September 6, 2012

Response by poster: For those of you who have bedtime darkness fears, does driving at night bother you, too? I think, to me, it feels isolating. There are other cars around, but few pedestrians, dogs, or other comforting sights around. Many of the roads I need to travel are suburban but lined by tall trees, and the housing developments are tucked further back.

I do have cats, and live in a condo, so the inside fears are more of an "I can't see/claustrophobia" than a bump-in-the-night fear. I also have a lot of visual snow in a pitch-black room (tiny dots of color in my field of vision) which adds to the uncanny, unreal feeling. I am also one of those people who dwell on the negative at night, so I try to fall asleep mid-book or mid-conversation. Heh.
posted by juniper at 4:25 PM on September 6, 2012

I'm afraid of the dark and hate driving at night. I know mine stems from abuse. I still use a nightlight and I sleep with my 30+ year old stuffed animal. When I first bought my (first gen) iPod touch, I discovered the magic of podcasts. Now I've gotten into listening to books (librivox). I find the voices helpful in keeping my brain from going cuckoo with the "what-ifs".
posted by kathrynm at 6:11 PM on September 6, 2012

Well, it's not exactly a solution, but maybe more inside lights would help? Especially the easy to turn on lights, rig up some clapper lights or little always on led tubing lights that line the hallway or something. Then at least it's not totally dark, and you can have lights on quickly and easily. It's also easier to turn them on whenever you get anxious. Bonus- no stumbling to the bathroom in the dark either.

And I suspect it might also be helpful to think of it as an anxiety. Remember that you're not in any actual danger. Personally, when I was a kid I was scared of the monsters in the closet. But it goes without saying it was always just the house creaking, and nothing ever happened.
posted by Aliera at 6:15 PM on September 6, 2012

Just a thought but some of my fears related to control and self abilities and knowledge of the situation. Keep a good strong flashlight that you can use to see that corner. It's dorky but I've always envied those trucks (and occasional car) with a spotlight that can be directed with a handle from inside.
posted by sammyo at 7:29 PM on September 6, 2012

Yeah, totally get a pet if you can. I would sleep in an abandoned church when my giant dog's around. When he's not, I WILL NOT LEAVE MY BED. I don't know how that really helps with driving and all that jazz, but it helps knowing that 10/10 my dog has no reason to flip out, so even when he's not there, there's probably no reason to be scared.
posted by Grandysaur at 9:21 PM on September 6, 2012 [1 favorite]

Let me first preface this with the fact that my older sister used to hide around corners and jump out at me, as well as hide under my bed and grab my leg while I was going to sleep, or while walking on the basement steps... I honestly didn't remember most of this until I brought up that I was still afraid of the dark in my late teens/ early twenties to my family and they recalled these stories from my early childhood (age 4~).

It shamed me as an adult male to be legitimately afraid of the dark, still sleeping with stuffed animals, getting anxious going to the washroom at night etc... and feeling like it was all due to psychological trauma from my childhood.

What I ended up doing though was writing out a mind-map of sorts about what the fear of the dark meant to me personally, building on the meanings it had to rationalize and reason out why I actually shouldn't be afraid of the dark. This was extremely effective and I am happy to say I have been successful in my goals on the matter for several years now.

Some of the conclusions I came to were based on the following (though I greatly suggest coming to conclusions of your own):

-darkness represents the unknown
-people are often scared about the unknown because it sets the stage for being out of control
-losing control is in itself frustrating, scary and causes anxiety

-in order to defeat a fear of the dark I had to gain control
-control to me meant knowledge, which would influence my thoughts on the subject going forward
-I built a reasoning based on the fact that 'the things' that could exist in the dark to hurt me simply did not
-second to this I reasoned that the things that had scared me previously actually did no harm, my sister being the prime example never actually hurt me, just made me feel uncomfortable.

-if there is nothing that can do me harm in the dark, there is no risk in it and I reasoned that this would be the key thing to remind myself of whenever I started to feel anxious or scared while in situations with less than optimal lighting

-turning the unknown nature of what lays in the dark into the reaffirmation that there is nothing there which can actually do me harm defeated the scary, unknown nature of it

Perhaps writing out what it all means to you will help in the same way it helped me. It was a glorious evening when I experienced this immediate change of perspective and it's actually extended itself to other aspects of my life as well that previously caused great anxiety such as public speaking.

All in all I wish you the best of luck.
posted by ~Bert at 12:43 AM on September 7, 2012 [1 favorite]

Just a thought with regard to nighttime driving. You feel isolated, but at least the car is a safe zone, right? Perhaps you could take a driver's skill course. It's a great thing for everyone to do. Just knowing that you have more mad driving skillz than the average Joe might make you more confident in facing the dark. You could be sure that your safe zone is as protected as you can make it.
posted by BlueHorse at 9:36 PM on September 7, 2012

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