Scared of the Dark
July 14, 2006 5:39 AM   Subscribe

Two part question. I'm afraid of the dark. When I go to sleep I either leave the TV going, or the door open and a nearby light on. If I don't do this then I lie in the dark and watch shadows move, I'm on edge, and I lay awake for hours. This would be fine if I was 8, but I'm nearly 30. Am I the only adult in the world with this phobia? I'm planning to travel soon and will be staying in places that don't have a regular electricity supply, so I'll need to be comfortable in the dark.
posted by cornflake to Health & Fitness (34 answers total)
Does it help if you have someone else in the room with you?
posted by ZackTM at 5:47 AM on July 14, 2006

The good news is, you're not alone. I sometimes watch the shadows, imagine they're a burglar or something, and can't sleep at all. My girlfriend just about has panic attacks if she's sleeping in a house alone, as soon as the lights go off.

I'd suggest gradually reducing the amount of light you sleep with. Maybe buy a dimmer switch for a lamp, and each night turn it down slightly?

If you haven't got your fear licked by the time you're travelling, what about buying a torch (if you'll be able to recharge batteries every now and then) or a small oil lantern?
posted by robcorr at 5:50 AM on July 14, 2006

can you tell us more about your fear? why are you on edge? do you fear intruders, or something else? does this happen even if you're drop dead tired?
posted by chelseagirl at 5:54 AM on July 14, 2006

Could you try sleeping with a sleep mask while you still have access to the TV and lights at night? Eventually you might be able to use the sleep mask as a security blanket when you have to sleep in total darkness.
posted by necessitas at 5:58 AM on July 14, 2006

A few peripheral questions:

Do you drink a lot of coffee?
Do you go to bed when you are very sleepy?
Does it help to have music playing when you try to sleep or is it just the need to see?
Has this been a problem throughout your life in all places that you have been?
Have you tried any relaxation techniques?
Do you use any prescription meds?
posted by JJ86 at 6:01 AM on July 14, 2006

I developed a fear of the dark for a few months in my mid twenties, shortly after my partner died; the dark was where the nightmares waited. Just last year, when I was staying with my parents caring for my dying father, I found it easier to sleep with a light on in the hallway or in a nearby room. (This was only partly due to the need to find my way to his room quickly in the night.)

For me, this fear was related to a particular emotional trauma, but I know how you feel.

When they go camping, my sister gives her children glowsticks. If they get scared, they simply crack the stick for 12 hours of faint light. The kids find this control over their environment so reassuring that they rarely bother to use the glowsticks, although they often sleep the whole night with a stick in their chubby little hands.
posted by Elsa at 6:11 AM on July 14, 2006 [2 favorites]

I've been afraid of the dark since I was a little kid (I'm now in my mid 30's). In the dark, there is always something behind me waiting to grab me. The deep shadows writhe and wriggle with malevolence. For me, it's definitely attached to psychological trauma, and I have an incredibly overactive imagination.

About 2 years ago, I decided that I was really tired of it
, so when I started to feel the monsters/beings around me, I would talk to them. I accepted the fact that the absolute worst they could do to was significantly better than what I THOUGHT they could do to me. It doesn't make them go away, but it certainly has helped me deal. It took a lot to face the fear, and I'm actually pretty comfortable in the dark nowadays. I've made friends with a lot of the monsters. (I know how weird it sounds, but keeps me happy :)
posted by zerokey at 6:29 AM on July 14, 2006 [1 favorite]

Glowsticks (or some other glow-in-the-dark item that can be easily charged during the day) was going to be my suggestion, but Elsa said it first.
posted by inigo2 at 6:30 AM on July 14, 2006

When I was a kid I was afraid of the things in the dark, not the dark itself.

I got a hammer and stood around in the dark for awhile. I practiced seeing in low light and moving in no light.

I became one of the things in the dark.
posted by ewkpates at 6:40 AM on July 14, 2006 [19 favorites]

The other option for providing light might be one of those LED flashlights that you shake to power up. It won't keep lit for hours at night, but if all you need is light until you fall asleep, it might be enough.
posted by jacquilynne at 7:00 AM on July 14, 2006

ewkpates, are you a poet? That was beautiful!
posted by grumblebee at 7:02 AM on July 14, 2006

I like ewkpates's answer, too. Although I don't remember being particularly afraid of the dark as a child, over the years I have learned to patiently wait for my eyes to adjust whenever I find myself in the dark. I find that I rarely need a flashlight even in the middle of the woods at night and without one I see far better than those who depend on artificial light and are thus confined to seeing things that are in the beam of their light. Practice seeing in low light and as ewkpates said, bcome one of the things in the dark.
posted by TedW at 7:18 AM on July 14, 2006

I just want to second ewkpates. I had a cat (excellent night vision -- look at the first set of butterfly pics) growing up and wanted to be more like the cat, namely not afraid of the dark. I memorized distances between objects, learned to wait for the pupils to dilate, etc.. With a little practice the night becomes a very comfortable place. Sleeping came pretty easy after that.
posted by jwells at 7:21 AM on July 14, 2006

Could you bring some candles with you for low lighting?

Does the sound of a TV droning in the background comfort you and/or drown out the sound of creaks in the night, or is it just the glow from the TV that you need? If sound would help, you could try listening to an MP3 player or CD player with earbuds while you go to sleep.
posted by iconomy at 7:25 AM on July 14, 2006

You could try a sunset simulator (these ones also work as regular dimmable bedside lights). Mine has a 30 minute sunset but you can have up to 90 with more expensive models.
posted by teleskiving at 7:42 AM on July 14, 2006

Response by poster: A few follow up things:

Does it help with other people in the room? Sort of. The panic doesn't go away, its just slightly less obvious

What am I afraid of exactly? Monsters & Ghosts, I think.

Do you drink a lot of coffee?
Tea rather than coffee

Do you go to bed when you are very sleepy?
Not really, I'm a night person so falling asleep between 10pm - 1am can be a challange but being at work by 8:30am means I have to.

Does it help to have music playing when you try to sleep or is it just the need to see?
I usually have either the TV or radio on, as well as the light.

Has this been a problem throughout your life in all places that you have been?

Have you tried any relaxation techniques?
Do you use any prescription meds?
Nope and Nope.
posted by cornflake at 7:44 AM on July 14, 2006

I'm with zerokey and ewkpates (just behind them in the dark, actually). I have a vivid imagination, which I actively cultivate; but sometimes when that particular switch gets stuck on in the night, the dark seems dripping with menace. The trick for me is to remember that I'm also usually pretty depressed, so if I can say, "Do your worst," and surrender, that usually takes the edge off it. Point being not to cultivate suicidal impulses, but as zerokey and ewkpates suggested, to make, if not friends, then at least a nodding acquaintance with your demons.

One way to accomplish this that has worked for me in the past is total immersion. I got over my discomfort with spiders by spending a lot of quality time with them in the narrow crawl space under my first house while doing frequent furnace repairs. My discomfort with water pretty much drowned in class five rapids while whitewater rafting. So if you have the time before your trip, you might want to consider a few exercises where you put yourself in a darkened room under carefully controlled circumstances, such as in a safe environment, with a friend in the next room, or have a trusted friend blindfold you, then let yourself grow accustomed to, and eventually comfortable with, the tricks your mind is playing on you. There are real dangers in the dark in some places, but they are rarely more of a threat to you than simply driving your car through city traffic. Your mind knows this, but you have to get it out of hypervigilant mode before it'll be ready to accept the potential risks as just part of the landscape. Good luck!
posted by It's Raining Florence Henderson at 7:45 AM on July 14, 2006 [1 favorite]

The problem isn't just the dark, it's the quiet. You're conditioned to some level of background noise and visual activity during the day (city noise, music, talking etc.). At night, you don't have the stimulus, so your brain which is used to it and is expecting it, is sort of filling it in where there isn't any.

Trying toning your day down and go on a media fast. Don't listen to music or watch tv during the day. No video games. Sit in quiet rooms and think instead of picking up some random thing to read. Do things that are focused that also let your brain run, draw, write, program, etc. Do only one thing at a time. No headphones.

At night, go to bed at a normal hour.
posted by Pastabagel at 8:21 AM on July 14, 2006

Develop a script where you categorize the things that you fear and respond to the fears with reason. Repeat to yourself that you are safe, and the darkness is safe. Learn to enjoy night, go out for a walk in the near-dark - most cities are quite light at night, and many neighborhoods are perfectly safe. Use your judgement here. . Play a game where you make the shadows on the wall friendly shapes. Your bookstore may have this book, which is lovely.
posted by theora55 at 8:28 AM on July 14, 2006

I'm pretty afraid of the dark.
When I am shutting the lights off behind me as I go to bed I sometimes have to run to avoifd the things that are going to get me. Don't like arm or hand off the side of the bed and sometimes JUMP into bed so nothing grabs me from under there.

Once I am in bed with eyes closed I am ok.

I know seems silly but can you force yourself to have eyes closed??

And it will be great to try to break yourself of the phobia but in case it doesnt happen by the time your trip comes there are some great battery operated little lanterns and prob plenty of solar ones by now too....
posted by beccaj at 8:38 AM on July 14, 2006

We sleep with a fan on in the open window, to cool us down and also to even out the night noises. I find it hard to sleep without the constant drone. I know Coleman makes a battery operated fan for use in tents. I don't know how noisy it is, but it might be useful to you for the masking effect. This one seems to come with a night light too.
(Absolutely not intending to promote Walmart, but theirs was the best picture I could find of it.)
posted by jvilter at 9:27 AM on July 14, 2006

I'm prone to bouts of insomnia and sleep paralysis with hypnagogic and hypnopompic hallucinations. I'm also a night owl (and love nighttime. My problem isn't the dark, it's sleeping in it.) Things that I've found that help:

* No surfing the web right before bed. In some thread here someone mentioned that staring at the lighted screen can exacerbate insomnia by overstimulating the eyes; this seems to be true in my experience.

* Watching a movie. The movie ends, something has been completed -- this provides a resolution that distracts me from all the little non-resolved things in my head that can get amplified as I toss and turn.

* Acknowledgement that this is some form of anxiety. This helps me feel more in control, as it provides a rational reason for the shadows. Like a mental version of turning on the lightswitch to discover that the hand you see creeping down the wall is the shadow of a treebranch.

* Forcing myself to breathe deeply and evenly. This is taking some practice, but seems to help lull me to sleep when I'm having a bad night. Psychologically, it also, again, makes me feel more in control, instead of being at the mercy and whims of my poor noisy head.
posted by desuetude at 9:37 AM on July 14, 2006

Do you have any pets, or would you be interested in getting any? When I spook myself out like that, I find it comforting to have my cat around -- basically because I feel like if there were ghosts or monsters or burglars or whatever, she'd be freaking out. Seeing that she's sleeping perfectly well, or at least not hissing at invisible evil things, is really comforting. It's also nice to be able to say "It's probably the cat" any time I hear an unexpected noise.

Doesn't help much in hotel rooms, but I found it did ease me into sleeping with no TV, which I found impossible to do in high school. (Weirdly, now I have the opposite problem. If there's an electric light on anywhere in the apartment, even if it's not really making the bedroom lighter, I can't sleep. I once woke up at 3am out of a deep sleep because a roommate had left the kitchen light on, on the other side of the apartment and on the other side of my closed bedroom door. Couldn't go back to sleep until I had turned it off.)
posted by occhiblu at 9:43 AM on July 14, 2006

cornflake, perhaps you could use one of these (a packlight). A portable LED light that'll last for hundreds of hours and get rid of the darkness for you. There are other similar products that use LED technology and last for hours.
posted by aeighty at 10:00 AM on July 14, 2006

This would be fine if I was 8, but I'm nearly 30. Am I the only adult in the world with this phobia?

I'm older than you and have the exact same problem. Or, rather its not a problem because I sleep with the lights on. Necessitas' answer above made me almost reel in horror. If there's anything worse than sleeping in the dark, its sleeping with a blindfold or mask - which makes me think its a fear/control issue. I dont have a problem walking around in the dark (like beccaj) - I just have a problem sleeping in it. Anyways, wanted to reassure you you're not alone and that (at least to me) its not even a problem.

Anyways, I rarely find myself somewhere without electricity but there are dim flashlights that will easily last through the night and covered with a thin sheet or something will provide a warm glow.
posted by vacapinta at 10:16 AM on July 14, 2006

Good to know I'm not alone. I CANNOT sleep in the dark alone. I'll wake up and see shapes moving, bugs, panthers. I've fallen down stairs, woken up parents, blah blah. I always keep a lamp on and I'm still prone to waking up in a panic. Getting to sleep isn't a problem, but there's almost 100% chance I'll wake up. Heat seems to be a factor; the warmer the room, the more fierce the terror.

That said, sleeping in the dark with someone else is just fine. But I refuse to sleep in a room that doesn't have a light source.
posted by GilloD at 10:29 AM on July 14, 2006

Nightlight. Run a fan for white noise.

I was in my early 20s before I outgrew being afraid in the dark, and it's still hard for me to come into a dark room after being in light (going to the bathroom in the middle of the night) without checking behind the door. I'm also paranoid of finding someone looking in my bedroom window, but that actually happened to me when I was a sophomore in high school. Time helps with that.
posted by IndigoRain at 10:34 AM on July 14, 2006

When I was a kid and couldn't stop my mind from dwelling on the monsters in the shadows, I would turn over vigorously and visualize myself "changing channels." Now that the monster channel was off, I could fill my head with calming thoughts. It helped. Though now I tend to thrash around in my sleep, maybe because I'm still turning over and over to change the channels.
posted by booth at 10:44 AM on July 14, 2006

ItsRainingFlorenceH has the right idea if you want to get rid of the fear permanently.

The best way to rid yourself of a phobia is to "rewire" your brain so that the stimulus (dark) no longer results in a fearful response.

To do that, progressively expose yourself to periods of darkness of controlled length without anxiety.

So: on the first night, sleep with all the lights on. No problem.

On the second night, try switching the lights off for a few minutes. If you feel fear, immediately switch the lights back on. How long were the lights off for? That's your trigger point. Now take a piece of paper and write down what thoughts were going through your mind, and what you were afraid of specifically. Next, write down why those thoughts are irrational. (e.g. fearful thought: "I am afraid of evil things that will kill me in the dark. "; rational thought: "Darkness is only the absence of light, if there were no evil things in the light just now, there's not likely any evil things either".

On the third night is switch the lights off for a few minutes for less than the triggering point. You should be comfortable with that. Repeat this for several days with the same time period.

At some point you can try for a slightly longer trigger point. If the fear comes back, do that writing exercise. (The writing exercise is key! The anxiety response is attenuated normally by the rational parts of our brain, the writing exercise helps to strengthen this dampening effect).

Keep going until you're fine. Note you may need to repeat this exercise from time to time because fears have a way of coming back.

In case you're wondering, i have used this basic technique to help me deal with fear of public speaking and fear of water. It works! It's a combination of acclimatization and cognitive behaviour therapy.
posted by storybored at 10:49 AM on July 14, 2006

For what it's worth (which is probably not much) I used to greatly prefer both a nightlight and quiet music in the bedroom while sleeping. These days, the nightlight keeps me awake, and I can take or leave the music, as long as I have a fan or some other white noise source running.

But, alas, I couldn't tell you why it changed.

I guess it can change, though.
posted by baylink at 11:04 AM on July 14, 2006

When I was a kid, my mother made the mistake of telling me that if I didn't go to sleep RIGHT now, the Snow Queen would come and nip my toes off with her cold fingers. That or the bogles would. Ergh.

Spent most of my time up until mid-teenagerhood occasionally reverting and freaking myself out and imagining axe murderers creeping up the stairs.

Then, I joined my university Territorial Army unit. I spent weekends out in very dark, very creepy woods. The crucial difference for me was that in those dark woods, I was armed and I was one of the things in the dark, like Ewkpates. There were other people out there in the dark, playing enemy, but I knew that was the worst that was there, and that by being vigilant and relying on my squadmates to be vigilant, we would be able to outfox and beat them.
Plus, my hindbrain said, if there were any monsters or axe murderers out there, they better watch out, because I had a gun, bayonet and thirty heavily armed platoon mates with me.

I got very good at moving very quietly, to the point that when I was training new recruits, I could get within inches of them without them seeing or hearing me. Watching their faces in the dark as they slowly realised the dark shape beside them was their section commander made me realise how unaware modern humans are of their environment.

Ultimately your fear of the dark is the manifestation of a perfectly natural survival instinct, but one that we largely don't need anymore. Get to know that instinct, get to know the dark, and I think you'll find, as other posters have said, that it becomes a pretty comfortable place to be.
posted by Happy Dave at 11:48 AM on July 14, 2006

No, you're not alone. I knew someone who was (is) very afraid of the dark. When she gave birth, her doctor had written all over her charts that she could not be in a dark room. When the delivering doctor and nurse insisted on turning out the lights, this caused my friend a lot of grief. It triggered some sort of post-partum depression (according to her psychiatrist) and she was able to go after the medical staff for overriding her chart or something like that.
posted by acoutu at 2:16 PM on July 14, 2006

One more middle-aged adult who has darkness issues, here.

For me it's pitch darkness that creeps me out, not just the urban, bedroom dark, which isn't totally black. Long ago on a camping trip (I was about 32) I was in a tent under the redwoods on a moonless night. As soon as the lantern went off, I totally freaked. In front of my newish boyfriend, I had to turn on a flashlight to keep the panic at bay. It was humiliating. Now I always have a light stick in my tent, or I make sure I'm outside under the stars, which actually put out a great deal of light.

At 42 I still have an air-filter running all night in my room, plus I listen to the radio all night. Part of my problem is getting my brain to just chill out, so I find listening to BBC distracting and very helpful. I'm better now, because I have lived alone for many, many years, and have just had to get used to it. But once in a while I will get spooked, by a TV show or a noise, and I will have to sleep with the light on.

You might feel a little better if you remind yourself of these things: your brain is going off on a bad one, of its own accord, and you can't just stop it; humans evolved to be vigilant in the dark, for good reason; if you were a hunter-gatherer, you'd be revered for your alertness, and might even be responsible for saving the asses of your cave-mates. :)
posted by shifafa at 10:22 PM on July 14, 2006

I'm a 32-year old skeptical atheist, and I'm scared of the dark. Always have been. If I turn out the light in the lounge, and have to make my way down the hall in total blackness to get to the bedroom, an irrational but very persuasive part of my brain tries to convince me that malevolent supernatural beings are lurking in every shadow. I find it hard to look at mirrors, because I have an overwhelming fear that I will see said spectres behind me. The rational part of my brain isn't much help. I don't show any outward signs - I'm calm, can hold a conversation and so on, but inside I don't feel happy at all.
posted by obiwanwasabi at 2:30 AM on July 15, 2006

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