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I'm a little embarassed I have to ask this but figured I cannot possibly be the only one who's had this problem.

I've gotten into (trail)running semi-seriously earlier this year. Considering how great it has been for my physical and especially mental health, I want to keep doing this. However it's been getting darker recently (especially with the switch to winter time where I live). As a result, most of the time when I'm free to run, it's dark or about to become so.

Now the problem: I'm afraid of being in the woods when it's dark. Specifically, I'm not scared of animals (there aren't really dangerous species where I live) or anything that it would be reasonable to be scared of but instead I fear what most would probably consider to be taken from horror movies. That is, my imagination simply goes wild at every sound or apparent movement.

These fears are not so bad that they'd stop me from running but I don't want my brain to start associating running with being scared. I assume this to be something to get used to but thought I'd just ask in any case. Here are some of my ideas to reduce my fear:

  • Go running when it's still bright (obvious): I try to do that whenever possible but I usually only come home very shortly before it gets dark. I could go running in the morning on some days but in all honesty, I'm too lazy for that.

  • Use light: I have acquired a headlight which is very bright (I couldn't run at all without one, in any case). This reduces my fear a bit, but not entirely.

  • Go running with other people/dog: Not really an option for me due to scheduling issues most of the time. I don't have a dog.

  • Listen to music: I suppose that would help but I prefer running without music as I see it as an almost "meditative" exercise.

  • Go running in the city: Similar to my above reasoning, I prefer trail running over city running.

I assume that other people were scared of being alone in the dark too. Is this something that one just has to get used to or are there any other techniques I can use to stop myself from thinking too much about "what might be out there in the dark" (I know I'm being irrational but that doesn't help much)?

Note: I talked about running specifically but see no reason why techniques from hiking etc. shouldn't also apply.

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    Music might make things worse, because you're more easily startled by anything that you do hear, such as another runner or a bike coming up from behind. I like to run with music if I'm alone, but don't on country roads because of vehicles sneaking up on me. Even some paths need care. Even in daylight - in fact darkness makes cars more obvious with their lights
    – Chris H
    Commented Nov 18, 2023 at 12:14
  • If you're in the States, you might consider buying a gun or a weapon of some description
    – Valorum
    Commented Nov 18, 2023 at 13:14
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    @Valorum That sounds like an absolutely horrible idea, and doesn't even address OP's concern (which is the admitted irrational feelings of fear, not actual fear for their safety).
    – chepner
    Commented Nov 18, 2023 at 15:23
  • Comments have been moved to chat; please do not continue the discussion here. Before posting a comment below this one, please review the purposes of comments. Comments that do not request clarification or suggest improvements usually belong as an answer, on The Great Outdoors Meta, or in The Great Outdoors Chat. Comments continuing discussion may be removed.
    – Willeke
    Commented Nov 22, 2023 at 5:21

6 Answers 6

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I think it’s quite normal to feel at least a bit scared when running in the dark. Especially when it’s pitch-black forests with all kinds of noises and you know the closest settlement is several kilometers away. The fear is an instinct which probably made a lot of sense in our evolutionary past.

It was never really bad for me, but I think as with many irrational fears (like a fear of falling or a fear of heights in rock climbing) two things help:

  • Be rationally aware that it’s not dangerous. You have a good headlamp, you have your smartphone with you, there are no predators attacking humans and (human) violence in your area is quite low. Nothing bad is going to happen.
  • Desensitize. Get to a point or scenario where the fear is there but manageable. Maybe you run at dusk or full moon or on a lit path instead of in deep, wild forest. Each time you do it and nothing bad happens the fear lessens and you can take it one step further. Don’t pressure yourself into really pushing it. Accept that on some days you’ll feel more nervous without any apparent reasons. These things come and go but generally it should slowly get better and better.
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  • Please note that irrational fears can't be dealt with successfully by rational thinking. Commented Nov 22, 2023 at 15:09
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    @anongoodnurse: True, but it helps when you remind yourself that they are irrational and that you are actually perfectly safe. When you hear something in the bushes and remind yourself that it can’t be bears or wolves because those have been extinct in your country for 200 years (and they are unlikely to attack humans anyway) it helps.
    – Michael
    Commented Nov 22, 2023 at 20:31
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    That's exactly trying to deal with irrational fears rationally. The OP stated that it's not a fear of animals, it's monsters (presuming a bit, as they mentioned horror films.) They already know monsters don't exist and have no need to fear them; that's what's irrational about it. I can relate. I had nighttime irrational fears as a youngster, and knowing there were no monsters under the bed didn't help. I had to use magical thinking to combat them (if I do this, that won't happen.) That's common even in adults with phobias. It gives a sense of control in face of the uncontrollable. Commented Nov 22, 2023 at 20:46
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    @anongoodnurse: For me at least it helps. Running in dark forests was only ever a minor feeling of unease for me, but I’ve had very strong fear of falling when rock climbing. To this day it helps me to remind myself that I’ve checked the knot, my partner checked the knot, my partner knows how to belay, the last quickdraw is just below me and nothing bad is going to happen if/when I fall. It’s a different story when I know that I must not fall. Just like it’s probably different when you go running and know that there are bears and criminals in your forest and there is an actual risk.
    – Michael
    Commented Nov 22, 2023 at 21:05
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    Don't mean to have a discussion, and I grant your answer is a good one. Imo, fear of falling off the face of a cliff is not an irrational fear. It's a fear that's overcomeable with reason. An irrational fear is that there's a monster waiting for you at the top! Commented Nov 22, 2023 at 21:12
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I am not a psychologist or anything in that field, and I have never been afraid of the dark. Just lucky, I guess. However, I will try to be helpful.

My impression from limited reading about conquering phobias is that one can gradually become desensitized. (There is a link to a question on TGO about overcoming snake-phobias which I added at the end of my answer. See Below.)

The idea is that you confront your fear or aversion, in small steps. For example, in the snake example, you start by looking at photos of snakes, starting with small snakes.

In the case of this questioner, I would suggest starting by running at dusk; next, starting to run at dusk, but timing things so that it is dark when he or she is a short distance from a lighted end-point. Then gradually increase the distance run in darkness, and then turn off the light at the end point.

Another tactic would be to run with a friend a short distance in darkness, then longer distances, and finally alone.

I also suggest the OP figure out under exactly what conditions the darkness is a problem. For example, is the OP uneasy when it is dark inside?

Finally, three points: (1) Experiment, but if the experiments do not help at all after, say, two months (a time I picked in total ignorance of what is reasonable), then seek professional help. (2) There are reasons to be concerned about running in the dark -- tripping, running into something, in some places being mugged -- but these are all entirely rational. So study your route in the daylight. (3) Try to improve your dark adaption, or at least understand at what point things look really dark to you, compared to someone else. I happen to have very good dark adaption, and a flashlight often makes things worse, for me.

I have no idea what will improve your dark adaption, if it is not good. Vitamin A ???? Better glasses ??? This is maybe a separate question.

Addendum: See the following Q and A on overcoming phobias, especially the answer on the Fear Ladder

overcoming phobias

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    Your point about dark adaptation is a good one. I can't get mine good enough to run anywhere realistic (an open gravel track in moonlight, yes, but I don't have any of those available) but walking in the dark, adaptation is ruined for a long time from one flash of someone else's light. So running in the dark has to be somewhere deserted - where the consequences of a fall could be severe. Also you'd be at risk of stoking legitimate fears in others moving around in darkness in some places - a little light would give away your presence, also if there's a chance of motor or bike traffic.
    – Chris H
    Commented Nov 18, 2023 at 12:09
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    This is exposure therapy, and it is absolutely the most common therapeutic approach to fears and phobias. (I used to do statistics in clinical psychology, among other topics on exposure therapy for spider/snake and social phobia, as well as PTSD, which is to a degree similar.) I do not know how successfully you can do this on your own, but for a low-grade fear like the OP's, it sounds like a reasonable first step. If the fear progresses to a stage where it does interfere with OP's enjoyment of life (say, by making it impossible to run for half the year), a therapist might be useful. Commented Nov 20, 2023 at 14:29
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    ... To continue in a therapeutic vein, "Go running when it's still bright", as the OP suggested, should be used carefully. This is essentially an avoidance strategy. This can absolutely help in avoiding fear and improve life satisfaction - one just has to be careful to manage this avoidance response so this does not interfere too much with one's life. The parallel for a social phobic would be withdrawal from social interactions. If overdone, the social phobic might end up hikikomori, and most people would agree that is taking it too far. Commented Nov 20, 2023 at 14:33
  • @StephanKolassa I suggest you make this an answer. There is enough added info beyond my answer to make this useful.. Comments are ephemeral, answers are forever!
    – ab2
    Commented Nov 20, 2023 at 19:45
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    Going running just before dawn might be a tad better. You still get the exposure factor, but you get to limit your worst-case exposure since daylight is fast approaching. In the back of your mind, you know that you're running out of the darkness and into the light. Also, I've found there's something about pre-dawn darkness that feels more calm and less spooky than late-night darkness.
    – bta
    Commented Nov 21, 2023 at 0:54
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Another thing that is very helpful is to get acquainted with the route in the daylight. Once you are running in a familiar environment, you'll no more startle at shadows, and you'll be more responsive for actual problems (say, some obstacles on the trail). If possible, choose paths that are not completely covered by woods, use the open sections to relax; finally, you can try to exploit the moon phases.

I sometime go hiking during the night for the sheer pleasure of it (that is, a tighter connection with the nature), and often I keep my headlight switched off: of course I do this only on paths I know very well.

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    Excellent advice. Things look wierdly different in the dark, and it is easy to get disoriented if you do not know the area very well.
    – ab2
    Commented Nov 21, 2023 at 14:08
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As with a lot of other people here, I am not a professional psychologist, but I know what worked for me. When I was younger, I was terrified of the dark. How I overcame this problem was identifying what made me afraid, and then coming to a realization...and that was; nothing in the dark can hurt me. There is nothing there to be afraid of. I would just tell myself this, and laugh about being afraid of the dark at the same time. Now the only thing I am afraid of is stubbing my toe because I can't see where I am walking in the middle of the night, or stepping on a LEGO :D The mind is a powerful thing. We can make ourselves afraid of the tiniest things because we don't understand them. But we can also overcome them by reassuring ourselves that we don't have anything to be afraid of.

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If you are afraid to be outside in the dark in situations where you rationally know that it is safe (enough), then it is a psychological problem. The best way to fix it is to get psychiatric treatment. Otherwise there are two ways to fix it (which the psychiatrist would likely use):

Either get used to it slowly and gently. Ask a friend to come with you. Stay until it gets dark but still visible. Then stay out a bit longer. Make it longer every day, then try it without a friend present. Hopefully nothing bad ever happens, and you get used to it.

Or the brutal method. Your friends (you shouldn't do that alone) leave you somewhere all night where it is utterly dark. And we hope that if you survive then you will be fine. On second thought, only let a proper psychiatrist do that to you. But then it is much quicker to get a result.

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As a starting point, it's worth noting you're not being paranoid. Walking or running at nighttime does place you at risk of potential harm and it's advisable to take that into account when conducting a simple 'threat-assessment' (e.g. 'how likely am I to get attacked?').

If you add in the additional risk factors of running on your own and running in woodland (where you're unlikely to see a potential assailant until too late) then you might want to start taking some sensible precautions. These will make you feel safer and have the added benefit of actual making you safer too.

  • Carry a personal alarm loud enough to be heard by at least the next nearest possible person to help you. In woodland this would be something with a very high decibel range, not just a simple body alarm.

  • Ensure you tell someone where you're going and when you're likely to be back. Don't forget to check in with them on your return.

  • Make sure you have a mobile phone fully charged. Practice getting it out of a holster and making a call.

  • Make minor changes to your route and setting-off times every day so that assailants can't plan an ambush.

  • Consider self-defence classes.

  • Practice self-awareness. Check posts on social media before setting off for reports of criminal activity, and make sure that you stick to routes where there's at least modest foot traffic.

  • Consider carrying whatever personal-defence weaponry is legal in your country (in the UK this would be something like a Defender Ring, in the US, a small pistol or pepper spray and in Germany, a stun gun), but remember that whatever you're holding could potentially be used against you. Make sure you know how to use it, and only brandish it if you fully intend to use it.

Ultimately, many of the the things you see in horror movies are pretty susceptible to mundane self-defence or could be defeated (or at least evaded) by someone who was aware of their surroundings and reasonably well equipped to defend themselves.

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    I live in the US. The idea of a runner or hiker carrying a gun because his or her imagination, by his own admission, goes "wild at every sound or apparent movement" makes ME affraid."
    – ab2
    Commented Nov 19, 2023 at 1:39
  • Comments have been moved to chat; please do not continue the discussion here. Before posting a comment below this one, please review the purposes of comments. Comments that do not request clarification or suggest improvements usually belong as an answer, on The Great Outdoors Meta, or in The Great Outdoors Chat. Comments continuing discussion may be removed.
    – Willeke
    Commented Nov 22, 2023 at 5:26
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    @ab2: even more: IMHO, someone in a situation where they are predictably subject to irrational fear is about the last one I like to have a gun or anything similar.
    – cbeleites
    Commented Dec 23, 2023 at 19:28
  • I live in Germany like OP says in their profile. The risk assessment of this question is ridiculously off. In Germany, trails in rural areas at nighttime/dark are not where one gets mugged. (That may be a consideration if OP were to run in certain urban park areas.) In the countryside outside villages, OP will meet mostly people walking their dogs, or occasionally someone biking or running and very rarely a hunter. For a potential mugger, areas where they don't meet anyone to mug, and if they do, it's someone with a dog is not a preferred scene of operations...
    – cbeleites
    Commented Dec 23, 2023 at 19:45
  • @cbeleitesunhappywithSX - It's trivially simple to find examples of muggers attacking joggers and people walking in towns and cities at nighttime in Germany (and indeed every country).
    – Valorum
    Commented Dec 23, 2023 at 19:50

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