Montefiore in the News
More Americans than ever are afraid of the dark, experts say. Here's why.
- March 30, 2022
While fear of the dark is most common among children 3-12 years old (affecting nearly 3 out of 4 kids, according to one study) many adults are also prone to fears of darkness. An estimated 11% of adults were already struggling with this fear before the pandemic, and experts say COVID-19 has made matters worse.
"Fear is triggered by a real or perceived threat. The global pandemic has evoked much uncertainty in different aspects of all our lives," said Gifty Ampadu, a psychologist for the Montefiore Health System.
And because research shows that fear of the unknown compounds other anxieties, fears of the dark and other phobias have increased exponentially.
Children and adults suffer from a fear of the dark for a variety of reasons. For example, darkness impairs one's vision. Not being able to see as well "increases anxiety, uncertainty and tension and this can lead to fear of the dark in any age group," explained Dr. Gene Beresin, a professor of psychiatry at Harvard Medical School and the executive director of the Clay Center for Young Healthy Minds at Massachusetts General Hospital.
Nightmares and biological predispositions to fear play a part as well. Krystal Lewis, a clinical psychologist and researcher at the National Institute of Mental Health, noted that people may experience fears of the dark, "due to the things they see or hear about, thoughts in their head (or) bad things they may have experienced." She also said some people "have a biological predisposition to fear and anxiety which could manifest at night."
Overcome fear of the dark and get more sleep by helping your child overcome theirs
Even when adults don't experience nighttime fears, their children often do, leading to a lack of sleep for an already sleep-deprived nation.
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"Children have keen imaginations that are wonderful for creative, expressive play and learning; but they have not fully distinguished the difference between reality and fantasy (imagination), so things that go 'bump in the night' might present as a threatening reality," Beresin explained.
And fears of the dark are often rooted in a fear of separation from one's parent, said Rachel Busman, a senior director for Cognitive & Behavioral Consultants and the former director of the Anxiety Disorders Center at the Child Mind Institute. The pandemic limited many opportunities for parents and children to be apart: "Kids were out of school and other activities for a long period of time and therefore lacked the important practice of separating from their parents," she said.
Parents can distract themselves from fearful thoughts and help children with overactive imaginations by providing happier things to focus on.
“Kids’ imaginations run wild at night, mostly because they do not have much preoccupying or distracting them and are often left with their thoughts alone. Parents (can) offer their kids alternative things to focus on such as a fun bedtime story," suggested psychologist Ampadu.
"Choose bedtime stories that make overcoming a fear of the dark a collaborative process," suggested Tamar Chansky, a Philadelphia-based psychologist and author of "Freeing Your Child from Anxiety." Indeed, Lewis noted one study showed children who were repeatedly told the same story about a boy who overcame his fear of the dark, reported a decrease in similar fears and did not need as much middle-of-the-night parental intervention.
Beresin added that everyone benefits from comfort items such as a blanket or stuffed doll. "Going to bed feels like a very scary loss – loss of soothing, loss of protection, loss of safety," he explained. That loss can be alleviated with a comfort item.
Consistent bedtime routines are also helpful for anyone afraid of the dark. Practices like taking a bath or mindful breathing techniques can be helpful for adults and children alike, said Dr. Mari Kurahashi, a director in the Division of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry at Stanford School of Medicine.
"A predictable bedtime routine...helps condition the (person) to prepare for sleep by winding them down for bedtime," she said.
Mantras are also important and can help people self-soothe, according to Ampadu. "Practice a mantra-like, 'My room is a safe place, and I am brave."
Stop thinking of the dark as a scary thing
Fears of the dark may also decrease when one learns to think about darkness differently.
For kids, this can look like engaging in fun activities after lights-out such as playing with glow sticks before bed or whispering a fun story.
For people of all ages, creatively managing the amount of light in a room through dimmer switches or hallway lighting is important as well. Night lights can be helpful for adults and kids, but don't leave too many bright lights on throughout the night as it's important to practice being in the dark, said Stephen Whiteside, director of the Pediatric Anxiety Disorders Clinic, at Mayo Clinic's Children’s Center. "Turning more lights on likely continues the problem," he said.
Beresin advised that white noise is helpful in covering up sounds that might be scary during the night. Soft music is also a good alternative.
And we should all minimize screen use before bed to avoid blue light that could be stimulating. "Avoid screens at least two hours before bed," Kurahashi suggested.