fear of the dark

Is a fear of the dark stopping you camping?

WITH more than one in ten of the world’s population believed to have a fear of the dark, it’s no surprise to learn that it is one of the key factors in preventing people from enjoying camping.

For many, who didn’t even realise they had any such fear, it’s also the reason why their tents get used once before promptly finding their way onto eBay.

Few will wish to admit to being slightly petrified at the crunch of footsteps outside their tent in the wee small hours, or suddenly feeling vulnerable because of a scratching sound somewhere below their hammock.

In the dark, it can often be difficult to distinguish between the snuffling nose of a curious hedgehog or your imagination’s sudden need to create a bloodthirsty axe-wielding monster straight out of a zombie movie.

And, while that notion might be easily brushed off with a chuckle by many, for those who suffer with even the mildest fear of the dark, it is no laughing matter.

So, is it possible to overcome an ingrained fear that some may dismiss as irrational?

In simple terms, the answer is ‘yes’, and ‘no’.

There are plenty of techniques that can help eradicate and lessen the sense of anxiety created by darkness and, in extreme phobia cases, assist with managing that fear.

Let’s examine what a fear of the dark actually is, and exactly whereabouts you fit within its scale.

What is fear of the dark?

First of all, let’s dispel the myth that you’re behaving irrationally if you have a fear of the dark. You’re not being irrational. Quite the opposite in fact. Being wary in darkness is a completely normal reaction and is deep-rooted within your very evolution as a human being.

This natural predisposition isn’t specifically about the lack of daylight, but more related to the brain’s perception of potential dangers hidden by darkness. After all, many of ancient man’s most feared predators would hunt under the veil of night, so we haven’t lost all of our caveman instincts.

Even a low-level fear (where you can just laugh it off and talk yourself round) can be exacerbated if you are alone – particularly camping wild and well off the beaten track – due to the lack of security and ‘safety in numbers’.

If you fall into this bracket, then you have nothing to be concerned about – a little more practice outdoors will soon eliminate any worries.

However, if rustling noises outside the tent, bivvy bag or tarp are going to keep you awake all night, you may need to employ a few simple techniques to ease your anxiety.

But, if these subconscious concerns move from being a natural protection mechanism and stray into clinical territory, then you may indeed have more of a phobia than a fear. This is called nyctophobia – a lifestyle-inhibiting condition which, sadly, sees many sufferers limiting their desire for adventure.

To know if you may fall into this category, think about the prompts that have triggered any fear in the past. Have you found yourself avoiding certain circumstances that would have exposed you to darkness? For instance, have you turned down the opportunity to go camping with friends purely because it would be dark, or have you managed to go camping but then been left sweating or trembling with a sense of unknown around you and unable to control that anxiety?

If that’s the case, there’s a real possibility that you suffer with nyctophobia.

But all is not lost. While there is no medicinal fix, treatments and therapies can help you to overcome this, and some of the techniques we discuss here may also go some way into getting you comfortable in environments where your adventurous spirit can be allowed to flourish.

How to beat your fear of the dark…

In most cases, a fear of the dark is something that can be eliminated with the one thing that creates that fear in the first place – the dark.

Alas, submerging yourself in the very thing that causes the problem is often the cure you need.

But don’t be alarmed, there’s plenty we can do to help condition your mind before you even set out with a tent and a map.

Firstly, do not start out alone. Buddy up with someone who can support and understand any underlying anxieties – not that joker who will likely whisper “did you hear about that mass murderer who escaped from the prison down the road yesterday?” at one o’clock in the morning.

Instead, choose a friend who you know won’t get the hump if you ask if it’s okay to put a dim light on in the middle of the night.

The first key to unlocking the answers to your fear of the dark lies in pre-planning your camping trip. Sit down together, grab a coffee or something stronger – whatever helps you relax – and talk. Discuss where you want to go, chat about the prospect of a beautiful sunrise, chew the fat about the food you might take, and have a natter about everything you can possibly think of in relation to your camping trip.

Do this again, and again, and again. As many times as you possibly can until your mind knows every single detail of your camping trip before you’ve even so much as pulled on a pair of thick socks.

This will condition your brain into thinking your trip is a foregone conclusion and no nagging doubts will be getting in the way. You’ve basically done several dry runs already in your mind, and you’ve already cracked ‘step one’. Good drills!

Next, start handling all the gear you’ll need. Familiarise yourself with all of it. Smell your back backpack, get in your sleeping bag, cook your lunch on your camping stove in the garden. Use everything until it feels like perfectly normal equipment you might use all the time.

Once you’re comfortable that you’ve reached that point, start working through some of these tips as you build towards your trip…

  • One night, at home, get all the gear that you will have in the tent. Turn out the lights and handle it all in the dark. Or, try it blindfolded. Then, to finish this exercise off, take a standard torch when blindfolded or in complete darkness and take it apart. Remove the batteries too. Now attempt to put it all back together while blindfolded or in darkness. This will genuinely help to condition your mind into understanding that you can confidently operate in total darkness and be secure in your abilities.
  • Take a walk in the dark – with a friend. It doesn’t have to be far, but just enough to get you aware of your senses. When you feel comfortable, make that walk alone or at least part of it. But not to the point where you feel anxious – that’s when you turn back. One small step at a time.
  • Study a map of where you will be camping. Pinpoint where notable features are, map them out in your head, and note whether they will be north, south, east, west etc of your position. Enhancing this sense of direction will help ease any feeling of disorientation that can be associated with a fear of the dark.
  • One day, go to the site where you will be camping during daylight. Make a mental note of every possible feature you can see – trees, bushes, walls, streams etc. Be as familiar with the surroundings of your chosen campsite in the daylight as you would be in your own kitchen. This is one of the most effective exercises you can perform in the quest to conquer a fear of camping in the dark.
  • If you sleep with a light on at home, try dimming the brightness gradually each night until you can bring it down to almost complete darkness as you get nearer the time of your camping trip.
  • If you don’t think you will be able to sleep in a tent without a light on, look at investing in a Betalight. Although more expensive than most torches or lanterns, a Betalight produces a constant, low-level light for up to 15 years. It is a sealed capsule lined with phosphorescent powder and filled with tritium gas. It was developed for military use – discretely reading maps at night etc.
  • Confront your fears head-on. It may seem extreme, but if you hear something outside the tent in the middle of the night, then get up, go outside, and look around. Two parts of your brain will be telling you different stories. The rational part will be telling you that the wind is rubbing two branches together, while the irrational side will be trying to convince you it is the sound of Freddy Krueger sharpening something. The more you lie there thinking about it, the more power you give to the irrational, so do the rational part of your brain a favour and go take a look so you can see the branches being moved by the wind for yourself.

Over time, and by using some of the techniques here, you should find that you will be able to bring your fear of the dark under control.

Of course, everyone is different and the speed and ease of breaking away from your fears or discomfort will vary. However, by remembering the techniques that work, and then practicing and repeating as often as necessary, you could be out camping before you know it.

FURTHER READING: See how nature can help your wellbeing by visiting our Ever Wild Wellness section.

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