In this blog we will discuss the symptoms, causes and treatment of Sciophobia.
An intense fear of shadows is called Sciophobia. It is a type of specific phobia which comes under the category of anxiety disorders in the DSM-V.
Someone suffering from this type of specific phobia will experience extreme anxiety when exposed to shadows (their own/someone else’s).
A mere thought of shadows acn instigate anxiety, let alone actually seeing them. If the anxiety worsens, one may undergo panic attacks.
Sciophobia is completely irrational, unlike fear of death and or Iophobia (fear of poison) which have some sense of rationality.
Shadows are not harmful because they are just the reflection of things or people that block light.
Normally, children or anyone who fears dark gets afraid of shadows.
However, someone who suffers from Sciophobia feels extremely terrified when they see shadows.
Some do realise that their fear is out of touch of reality but they’re unable to rationalise it and thus, end up avoiding shadows, to decrease anxiety.
Individuals suffering from an intense fear of shadows take all the possible measures in order to avoid getting exposed to shadows.
The pleasant feelings this act produces persuades them to continue avoiding their fear stimuli.
Therefore, they develop a habit of doing so and end up maintaining or worsening their fear.
Avoidance justifies one’s fear by eliminating anxiety. This proves to the sufferer that shadows are to be feared of.
The phobia worsens when one is unable to avoid shadows and ends up having panic attacks or other physiological symptoms.
This repeated avoidance can turn into compulsions, leading one to develop OCD in the long run.
According to the DSM-V, anxiety and avoidance affects one’s social and occupational functioning.
For example, one will prefer not going out of the house, usually at night or evening (when shadows are very likely to be formed) in order to avoid seeing shadows.
They may end up not leaving the house at all.
Sufferers in this case will self-isolate themselves, which can lead to their academic and professional lives being affected.
An individual may require frequent hospitalization because of the fact that avoiding shadows all the time is almost impossible.
This recurrent need to go to a hospital can burden one’s family members, not just financially but emotionally too.
Sciophobia is an irrational fear of shadows. The name derives from the Greek word ‘scio’ meaning shadow and ‘phobos’ meaning fear.
Symptoms of Sciophobia
People with Sciophobia, like in all other specific phobias experience intense anxiety on having an encounter with shadows.
They’re unable to control this anxiety and thus end up feeling more anxious. This anxiety, in extreme cases, can give rise to full-blown panic attacks.
Sufferers go into flight or fight mode because of an adrenaline rush. In this state, the body’s physiological responses help one make decisions when in fear causing situations.
They either decide to escape the situation (flight) or stay and combat their fear (fight).
In the case of Sciophobia or any other type of specific phobia, the physiological symptoms that are produced when exposed to shadows (including extreme anxiety) cause the person to escape or avoid that situation.
Sufferers don’t have the courage to fight with their fear because of the unpleasant, terrifying experience the body goes through.
In Sciophobia one experiences anxiety lasting for at least 6-months, according to the DSM-V.
Apart from anxiety, Sciophobia has a number of other physiological symptoms which include:
- Extreme anxiety when exposed to shadows
- Extreme anxiety by just thinking about shadows
- Avoiding shadows
- Full-blown panic attacks
- Inability to handle anxiety
- Muscle tension
- Increased heartbeat
- Feelings of dizziness
- Screaming or crying
- Hot/cold flashes when in a flight or fight mode (A hot flash refers to the temporary heating up of the body when in a state of fear. And a cold flash means when the body suddenly starts to shiver or cool down, when encountered by a fear stimulus).
- Upset stomach
Out of these, one should have at least 3-5 symptoms (including anxiety) to be diagnosed with Sciophobia.
Causes of Sciophobia
Like every other specific phobia, Sciophobia is a result of either genetics or a past traumatic experience.
Someone who has a family history of anxiety disorders or specific phobias has a higher chance of developing Sciophobia than someone who doesn’t.
This is because they are genetically predisposed to develop it.
This genetic tendency to develop a mental disorder/specific phobia can also be referred to as a Diathesis-stress relationship.
According to this, one with a genetic predisposition will not develop symptoms of Sciophobia until and unless there is some trigger event, instigating anxiety or fear of shadows.
A trigger event can be for example, someone associating shadows with ghosts or something scary.
This is because usually shadows don’t look exactly the way an object is. One might be scared of them because of the way they appear (a bit scary).
Also, stories books/films sometimes depict shadows to be evil or dangerous.
One may develop Sciophobia because their elder siblings told them stories about how shadows can cause one harm, therefore this fear impacts their mids and remains with them for the rest of their life.
Fear of darkness can also lead one to develop Sciophobia because shadows are dark, and dull.
One who is afraid of the dark might find looking at shadows frightening.
Additionally, children whose parents are fearful of shadows are very likely to learn this behaviour from them and develop this irrational fear of shadows.
Thus, genetics and environmental factors, both play significant roles in causing one to develop Sciophobia.
Treatment of Sciophobia
Sciophobia, like all other specific phobias, has no exclusive type of treatment that is specifically designed to treat it.
Like all the other specific phobias, Sciophobia is treated by a number of different therapies including, Exposure Therapy, Cognitive-behavioral Therapy (CBT) and or medications that lower downs the anxiety or other physical symptoms.
• Cognitive-Behavioral Therapy (CBT)
It is one of the most frequently used treatments for patients with almost all kinds of mental disorders.
Sciophobia is defined as the irrational fear of shadows. Thus, the therapist helps the patient in replacing these irrational thoughts with more rational ones.
The patients are helped out in analyzing and justifying the way they feel about being exposed to shadows.
Therapists assist them in uncovering the reasons behind their fear and later they provide them with alternate, pleasant thoughts.
The patient is told to maintain a thought diary (with ABCD column) which provides them a replacement for every irrational thought they have, when thinking about a particular situation.
The ABCD stands for:
i. A (antecedents) a situation or triggering event.
ii. B (belief) the thought that comes to one’s mind when in that triggering situation.
iii. C (consequences) the symptoms/feelings caused by that event/thought
iv. D (dispute) alternate, rational thoughts provided by the therapist in an attempt to dispute/challenge those irrational beliefs.
This last section of the thought diary is what really plays a role in helping the person feel good/less anxious.
• Exposure Therapy
It is one of the most frequently used ways of treating patients with Acarophobia (or any other kind of specific phobia).
In this therapy, the patient is exposed to the source of his fear over a certain span of time.
To begin with the therapy, the therapist exposes the patient to the least triggering stimuli, a picture of a shadow for example.
As the therapy progresses and the patient is able to control his anxious feelings, imagery can be used to take the treatment a step further.
In this part of the treatment the patient is asked to visualize/imagine a situation in which he sees or encounters a shadow.
During this process of imagery, one actually feels being in that particular situation or place, experiencing various senses.
Once the person successfully, without feeling anxious clears this step of the therapy, he is then exposed to real shadows.
While the patient is being exposed to different intensities of stimuli during the various stages of therapy, the therapist simultaneously teaches them coping exercises.
These include, breathing techniques or muscle relaxation methods to lower their anxiety, when in an actual fear/anxiety causing situation.
This teaches them how to remain calm when exposed to the fear stimuli.
Before actually starting the exposure therapy, the therapist needs to figure out the intensity of the patient’s fear, as to deduce whether they will be able to undergo this treatment, without any physical or psychological harm caused to them during the exposure processes.
However, these steps desensitize one to their fear of shadows, by exposing them to that stimuli repeatedly, until they learn to undergo the situation without anxiety/panic attacks.
• Dialectical Behavior Therapy (DBT)
This is another effective therapy used to treat Sciophobia. It is more commonly used with people suffering from personality disorders, but is also useful with patients of this ‘animal’ specific phobia.
Coping skills are taught in the DBT group which lasts for about 6 months and can have a number of people (depending on how many join the group).
i. Half-smiling is the first module of DBT. It is a technique that is used with patients who are distressed because of their irrational thoughts.
The technique is known as ‘Half-smiling’ because the person is first advised to think about the stimuli that fears or upsets them, and while doing so they are told to lift the corners of their mouths by subtly smiling.
Smiling is not that will help one get rid of these unpleasant thoughts, it is the person’s ability to constrain itself from thinking about those thoughts while half smiling.
ii. Mindfulness, the second module, is another technique used in DBT groups which helps the individual in getting rid of those negative thoughts.
Individuals are told to focus on the present and be attentive to what is going on around them at the moment. This helps in breaking the link between their mind and any negative thought that might come to them then.
For example, a person is told to focus on his breath or on the sound of the blowing wind, making use of their auditory sense.
iii. The third technique or module of the DBT is distress tolerance skills. This module teaches people to calm themselves down in healthy ways when they are distressed or emotionally overwhelmed.
Individuals are allowed to make wise, rational decisions and take immediate action, rather than being captured by emotionally destructive thoughts that might make the situation worse.
Reality acceptance skills are also learnt under this model so that people fully accept reality and later make plans on how to address the problem/fearful aspects to it.
• Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction (MBSR)
MBSR is a meditation therapy, used to manage stress or anxiety. It is an 8-week program which includes group sessions.
Mindfulness meditation and Hatha yoga are practiced in these sessions. Lectures and group discussions are also done to talk about mental health and increase interactivity.
In mindfulness meditation the person is told to, for example, to focus on the sensations felt while breathing or the rhythm of the chest rising and falling during the process.
This distracts the person’s attention from something stressful to something which is neutral and soothing.
For quick and effective treatment, patients are also given a set of home works, for example 45 minutes of yoga and meditation sessions for 6 days a week and to record their results/feelings in a book or diary for 15 minutes a day.
• Drug Therapy
Drugs are used to reduce the physical symptoms caused by Sciophobia. Drugs are very quick in effectiveness, as they start showing progress in the patients’ health at least 2 weeks after the medicine is taken.
This type of biological treatment is usually more effective if the cause of the phobia is only genetic.
However, these drugs/medicines are not to be taken without a doctor’s prescription or consultation.
Two types of drugs are used in the treatment of this phobia:
i. Anti-anxiety Drugs
Medicines like Valium are anti-anxiety drugs. They are most commonly used with patients who experience panic attacks and also lowers their anxiety by binding to receptor cells of the brain that cause these unpleasant symptoms.
ii. Antidepressant Drugs
These drugs, as the name suggests don’t only treat depression but are also very effective in treating phobias.
Medicines like Lexapro reduce the anxious feelings of a person and makes him feel calm.
They need to be taken on a daily basis but not without a doctor’s advice.
Whether the cause of Sciophobia, or any other type of specific phobia is genetics, environmental or both, the best and the most effective way of treating them is by using a combination of both biological treatments (drugs) with cognitive treatment (for example CBT/exposure therapy).
Titles to read
- Sciophobia: Fear of Shadows
by John Gidley
- Exposure Therapy for Anxiety, Second Edition: Principles and Practice
by Jonathan S. Abramowitz, Brett J. Deacon, et a
- Specific Phobias: Pharmacotherapeutic options
by Jarnail Singh and Janardhan Singh
- Mastery of your Specific Phobia
by Martin M. Antony, Michelle G. Craske, et al
Frequently Asked Questions
Q1) Is there a fear of shadows?
Sciophobia, also known as Sciaphobia is an irrational fear of shadows.
Q2) Why are shadows scary?
People who fear dark can also fear shadows because shadows are made/thrive in the dark.
Q3) What does it mean to be afraid of your own shadow?
It means that one gets frightened very easily and that they have Sciophobia if they suffer from anxiety too.
Q4) What is the most common phobia in the world?
Arachnophobia (fear of spiders) is one of the most common phobias of the world.
Examples of other interesting phobias