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‘I’m 31 And Still Afraid Of The Dark - What's Wrong With Me?'

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‘I’m 31 And Still Afraid Of The Dark - What's Wrong With Me?'

Words by Kavi Shah, 31, from London

My heart feels like it's racing at 1,000 miles per hour, and my breathing is getting louder and louder.

I turn off Spotify the moment I get off the night bus and yank my headphones from my ears.

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I'm clenching onto my keys - one lodged between each finger - just in case. I'm walking as fast as my legs will take me, occasionally jogging, in a bid to get to my front door a little quicker. "Nearly there," I tell myself.

I'm alone, on the final leg of my journey home on a quiet, leafy street in north-west London after drinks with friends in town. And even though the roads are lit by street lamps, I'm worried for my life, convinced someone is going to jump out and grab me at any moment.

I'm 31, and I'm scared of the dark.

Kavi is on a mission to find out why she's still afraid of the dark (Credit: Kavi Shah)
Kavi is on a mission to find out why she's still afraid of the dark (Credit: Kavi Shah)
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Sadly it's a feeling that, for myself and many women, has only been heightened by the death of Sarah Everard.

This fear factor (known as nyctophobia) doesn't just come up when I'm out, but also at home; if it's nighttime and I turn a light off in a room, I speed out the doorway and don't look back: the bogeyman might get me.

After turning out the light at bedtime, I force my eyes shut because otherwise I'll lie awake making shapes out of the darkness. I even feel a little on edge in the cinema. And it seems I'm not alone, with 64 per cent of British adults also admitting to being scared of the dark. Deep down I know my phobia is irrational, but I can't seem to shake it - surely I should have grown out of this by now?

Turns out there's a little more to it. "Fear of the dark, as an adult, is most likely due to an unprocessed event or experience from the past that is lodged in our system," says Lucinda Gordon Lennox, a psychotherapist and trauma specialist at The Recovery Centre in Knightsbridge, London.

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This could be as obvious as a horrible memory from the past - for example something happened that in the dark and left us frightened - but this is not always the case.

For many women, walking home alone at night can be a daunting experience, writes Kavi (Credit: Shutterstock)
For many women, walking home alone at night can be a daunting experience, writes Kavi (Credit: Shutterstock)

"What is likely is that there will be a combination of some events or experiences from our past that were not processed enough at the time, all contributing to our current fear," Lucinda adds. "They could be traumatic events, or, for example, they could be that our needs were not met enough by our caregivers when we were little, enough of the time.

"We might not consciously connect our past with being afraid of the dark, as many of the traumas connected with our current fears or phobias are stored in the unconscious. So if there's something that happened and we haven't processed it completely, it'll continue to affect us, no matter our biological age."

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Karla Hall, senior psychological wellbeing practitioner at Living Well UK, suggests there are ways to desensitise ourselves. "Generally speaking, as with any fear or phobia, gently exposing yourself to it is what will get you through it."

There's a technique called Exposure Therapy that recommends spending more and more time in the dark until you realise your fear is unfounded. Exposure Therapy also challenges the thinking behind it - what is actually going to happen in the dark and do you have any evidence to support this idea? - so that we are able to then move past it.

For me, that might involve spending time in the darkness at home - with my eyes open - and increasing the amount of time spent there to get used to the feeling of being in the dark in a safe space.

Kavi confesses she is even afraid of being home alone at night (Credit: Kavi Shah)
Kavi confesses she is even afraid of being home alone at night (Credit: Kavi Shah)
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"The 4-7-8 breathing method, also known as "relaxing breath", could be particularly good when you're doing exposure therapy, perhaps sat alone in the dark.

"Breathe in through your nose for four seconds, hold this breath for seven seconds, then breathe out for a count of eight through the mouth, making a whooshing sound. Repeat.

"Lion's Breath is another technique to try. Sit with your back upright and inhale through your nose, then open your mouth, stick your tongue out and exhale forcefully, making a 'haaaa' sound. Return to normal breathing then repeat."

Lucinda recommends finding an attachment-focused eye movement desensitisation and reprocessing therapist (AF-EMDR) to help pinpoint and release whatever memory or experience from the past that is being triggered by the dark.

Kavi is exploring techniques to help conquer her fear of the dark (Credit: Kavi Shah)
Kavi is exploring techniques to help conquer her fear of the dark (Credit: Kavi Shah)

Studies appear to suggest that women are more scared of the dark than men - but just how true is this? Lucinda thinks there may be an evolutionary element revolving around the male hunter-gatherer protector mentality that explains why they are less afraid of the dark than women because they are bigger risk takers and have evolved differently.

A study in the Journal of Pediatric Psychology suggests that this "cautious approach" could be ingrained from childhood, with parents being four times more likely to tell young girls than boys to "be more careful" after they experienced an injury.

But Lucinda adds that unresolved trauma is just as prevalent among men as it is in women - so if it doesn't manifest itself as a fear of the dark it may simply resurface in other areas. "It's possible that men are just as frightened of the dark as women but they do not like to admit it because of the untrue belief that men should hide their vulnerability," says Lucinda.

"The idea that women are less able to defend themselves is also commonly portrayed, and so maybe that plays a role in the narrative that women might be more scared of the dark," adds Hall.

But the question remains as to whether this is accurate or just perception as there is little literature that supports the idea that women are more afraid of the dark than men, but more so fearful of acts of crime against them."

As for me? I plan to try Exposure Therapy by sitting alone in a dark room at home, and following the breathing techniques at the same time, to see if I can feel a little more used to - and comfortable - being in the dark.

The Tyla Team
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