It sounds like the plot of a vampire novel -- an otherwise healthy, well-adjusted person begins to live a life shrouded in darkness. She works nights and sleeps all day behind blackout curtains. If she must leave the house during the day, she slathers on a thick layer of sunscreen and hides behind dark glasses. Yet for those with heliophobia, or fear of sunlight, this may be reality.
Fear of Skin Cancer
In some cases, heliophobia is actually a type of health anxiety. Skin cancer is a very real risk from overexposure to the sun. In recent years, it has been heavily covered in the media. People suffering from hypochondriasis or nosophobia may develop symptoms of heliophobia, believing that minimizing their exposure to the sun will minimize their chances of developing skin cancer. Likewise, those who have been treated for skin cancer, or know someone who has, may be at increased risk for heliophobia.
Fear of Sun Damage
There is a great push in society today to minimize the effects of aging. Sun damage is a known cause of premature aging, which can lead people to avoid the sun. Those who suffer from body image issues may be more likely to take this natural concern to an unhealthy extreme.
Obsessive-compulsive disorder, or OCD, is hallmarked by recurrent and persistent thoughts that cause anxiety or distress. While the dangers of sun exposure may occur to anyone at any time, it is often no more than a fleeting thought. Someone with OCD, however, might have trouble turning off those thoughts. Compulsions are rituals that OCD sufferers perform in an effort to relieve the anxiety caused by the intrusive thoughts. Careful sun avoidance could develop into an OCD compulsion.
Medical Sun Sensitivity
Photodermatitis is an abnormal physical reaction to UV rays. The condition causes skin irritation, scaly or bumpy rash, pain, dark patches and even fever with chills. It is sometimes triggered by medications or exposure to certain plants, but may also occur on its own.
Porphyria is the medical term for a group of related inheritable disorders. These exceptionally rare diseases can cause a long list of symptoms, including muscle paralysis and mental illness. Additionally, porphyria often causes severe photodermatitis that leads to almost instant skin blistering when exposed to the sun. These blisters are deep and quite painful, and may take weeks to heal. Iron deficiency is common in some types of porphyria. Vlad the Impaler, on whom the character of Dracula was based, may have suffered from iron-deficient porphyria.
Medical sun sensitivity is not considered a phobia. However, some people with sun sensitivity are afraid to expose themselves to the sun at all, even under a doctor's recommendations. If you are sun sensitive, work closely with your physician to determine safe levels and methods of sun exposure.
Heliophobia and Lifestyle Choices
Some people simply prefer to sleep during the day and perform the activities of daily living at night. In today's culture of 24-hour restaurants, shops and entertainment options, it is easy to accommodate any natural bodily rhythms. This lifestyle is often associated with those who self-identify as "Goths," but people from all walks of life prefer a nighttime schedule.
Most people who work and play at night have no actual fear of the sun and, therefore, do not suffer from heliophobia. Over time, however, it is possible to develop sun avoidance. If you find yourself unable to cope during the day when necessary, you might have developed a bit of heliophobia.
Complications of Heliophobia
Most of the time, heliophobia is mild and causes few problems in daily life. Working nights, slathering on sunscreen, and installing blackout curtains are minor fixes that generally take care of the issue. More severe cases of heliophobia, however, could cause problems.
If you have a job that requires you to spend time outside during the day, heliophobia could limit your success at work. Likewise, children and teens may be at higher risk for complications since they are required to be at school during designated daytime hours. Even if they are homeschooled, kids with heliophobia may be at risk for social isolation and depression due to their inability to spend time with peers. Both children and adults may be ostracized for their "strange" habits or even accused of participating in odd religious cults.
Like most phobias, heliophobia can be treated in a variety of ways. Your mental health professional will work with you to develop a treatment plan that might include cognitive-behavioral methods, hypnotherapy, or other techniques. If another disorder, such as OCD, is involved, your treatment may be slightly more complicated. If your heliophobia is caused by a medical sensitivity to the sun, your therapist will work in tandem with your physician to simultaneously treat both the physical condition and your anxiety.
American Psychiatric Association. (1994). Diagnostic and statistical manual of mental disorders (4th Ed.). Washington, DC: Author.
Photodermatitis. University of Maryland Medical Center. Retrieved January 28, 2012 from http://www.umm.edu/altmed/articles/photodermatitis-000155.htm.
Porphyria. PubMed Health: National Institutes of Health. Retrieved January 28, 2012 from http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmedhealth/PMH0002188/.