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Light Dark, Interoceptive Conditioning, and Specific Phobias

Posted Oct 24 2009 10:01pm

Live Science recently published the Top Ten Phobias with "fear of the dark" being "number 6."  I' ve long wondered if there might be an "interoceptive conditioning" issue with people with fear of the dark.  It always seemed to me that persons with panic disorder feared the dark in greater numbers (as evidenced by high use of night lights).  Why would that be that people who experience panic attacks would be fearful of the dark???

The answer might lie in misinterpretation of internal physical sensations (or classically/pavlovian conditioned responses to certain physical sensations).  So, a person prone to panic sitting in a darkened room is more likely to focus on "internal sensations" (a beating heart, muscle twitches, changes in breathing) since there is nothing "outside of the body" (e.g., things to see) to focus on.  So, the panicker' s focus turns inward, on those internal physical sensations that tend to automatically elicit anxiety and panic.  The panic patient notices a change in heart beat (internal physical sensation), then catastrophizes by thinking that some harm will befall him (a cognitive reaction), thereby leading to even greater heart rate (a physical reaction), then leading to full blown panic and escape (a behavioral reaction).

This leads to an entirely new conception of phobias...in which one must ask, "what is the person really afraid of?"...is it the dark and all the scary things that might happen?  I think not.  Instead, it may be the fear of unpleasant physical sensations which are conditioned elicitors of anxiety and panic.

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