In this blog we will deliberate the symptoms, causes and treatment of Heliophobia.
What is Heliophobia?
An intense fear of the sun is known as Heliophobia. Sufferers also fear bright light. It is a type of a specific phobia with concentrated levels of anxiety.
Anxiety, if intensified, can also cause full-blown panic attacks. Individuals might need hospitalization if the anxiety or panic attacks worsen. Someone suffering from this type of specific phobia is not only fearful of being exposed to the sun/bright light, but just the thought of it can induce fear.
Sufferers are afraid of getting skin cancer, skin allergies or photo aging. Heliophobia can also be referred to as a type of health anxiety. Mostly, people who have been treated for skin cancer or hypochondriasis are likely to develop Heliophobia.
According to the DSM-V, one needs to have anxiety for at least 6-months. This anxiety should affect one’s social and occupational functioning. For example, a sufferer might confine himself to his home, in the fear of being exposed to sunlight. This will lead to them losing friends, family and can result in one developing depression in the long run.
One will also avoid going outside the house during the day for job or educational purposes, thus they might not be able to make their ends meet.
Someone suffering from Heliophobia will take all the possible measures they can, to avoid the sun. This avoidance, though eludes them of anxiety, one can develop Obsessive-compulsive Disorder (OCD) in the long run.
Heliophobia is a type of specific phobia. It is the irrational fear of sun, sunlight or bright light, which causes extreme anxiety to the sufferer.
Heliophobia, like all other specific phobias, has anxiety as their focal symptom. Because specific phobias are a part of anxiety disorders, sufferers experience extreme anxiety. This anxiety can also cause full-blown panic attacks, if the symptoms worsen.
Apart from anxiety, one suffers from other physiological symptoms like headache or nausea. The intensity of symptoms varies between individuals, based on their personal experiences.
Heliophobia is not completely irrational because of the fact that sun rays can have adverse effects on one’s health. However, the sufferer is unable to completely justify their extreme anxiety because they cannot rationalize their feelings in real time.
The symptoms of Heliophobia are as follows:
- Extreme anxiety when exposed to sun/bright light.
- Extreme anxiety when thinking about being exposed to sun/bright light.
- Inability to control anxiety
- Full-blown panic attacks
- Muscle tension
- Increased heartbeat
- Excessive sweating
- Dry mouth
For the diagnosis of Heliophobia, one should have at least 3-5 symptoms, lasting for at least 6-months.
As is the case with all other specific phobias, Heliophobia has no absolute real cause for it. It can be caused, either genetically or due to some environmental reasons.
According to the genetic explanation, one can develop this phobia if they have a genetic predisposition. Meaning, if someone has a family history of any mental illness, they are more prone to have Heliophobia. For example, if someone’s parent(s) have Heliophobia, or any other type of specific phobia it is very likely that their child might develop it too. Because genes are transferred from the parents to their children.
One also develops a specific phobia if their fear is triggered by some event. For example, someone with body dysmorphic disorder will be fearful or extremely anxious of the way they look. Therefore, they will prevent going out in the sun because of the fear of having photo aging.
One might also avoid the sun because of the fear of being affected by the sun’s UV rays. Although this fear is not irrational, people with Heliophobia will take pain staking actions to prevent being touched by light.
Heliophobia can also be the result of a learned behavior. If someone has seen their parents being afraid of sun or bright light, they might just imitate them.
Additionally, Heliophobia can also be a result of someone else’s experiences. An individual might become fearful of the sun by listening to an incident in which a person got some skin allergy or skin cancer as a result of being exposed to sunlight.
Media reports about how much harm can the sun cause to one’s health might also spawn Heliophobia.
Therefore, Heliophobia is caused by a number of reasons, either genetically or due to some past-traumatic event/ environmental reasons.
Heliophobia like all other specific phobias has no exclusive type of treatment that is specifically designed to treat it. Like all the other specific phobias, Heliophobia is treated by a number of therapies including, Exposure Therapy, Cognitive-behavioral Therapy (CBT) and or medications that lowers down the anxiety or other physical symptoms.
• Exposure Therapy
It is one of the most frequently used ways of treating patients with Heliophobia (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 the sun 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 encounters sunlight (for example, in their backyard). During this process of imagery, one actually feels that he’s 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 the real sunlight.
While the patient is being exposed to different levels of fear 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 causing situation. This teaches them how to remain calm when exposed to their 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 sun, by exposing them to that stimuli repeatedly, until they learn to undergo the situation without anxiety/panic attacks.
• Cognitive-Behavioral Therapy (CBT)
It is one of the most frequently used treatments for patients with almost all kinds of mental disorders. Heliophobia is defined as the irrational fear of the sun. 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 sunlight.
The therapists assist them in uncovering the reasons behind their fear and later 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.
• Dialectical Behavior Therapy (DBT)
This is another effective therapy used to treat Heliophobia. It is more commonly used with people suffering from personality disorders, but is also useful with patients of Heliophobia. Coping skills are taught in the DBT group which lasts for about 6months 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 smell of a certain food presented to them, making use of their olfactory 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.
• 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 15minutes a day.
They are not just one of the many treatment therapies used for Heliophobia, instead they are one of the most common ways of relaxation used by many people. Yoga tends to stimulate the meditative state of one’s mind while a person is in a particular yoga pose/position. Through yoga/meditation the mind is diverted towards something more productive and calm, allowing the person to escape the negative, distress causing thoughts.
Out of a number of yoga types, one can benefit for any yoga type/pose they like. Hatha yoga is one of the different types of yoga. The breathing techniques or the imagery one creates while in a yoga posture are the real factors that makes the person feel less anxious and diverts their mind, away from the thoughts about sun/sun light.
• Drug Therapy
Drugs are used to reduce the physical symptoms caused by Heliophobia. 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 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
These include medicines like Klonopin. They are most commonly used with patients who experience panic attacks and also lowers the anxiety by binding to receptor cells of the brain that cause these unpleasant symptoms.
ii. Antidepressant Drugs
These drugs as the name suggest 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 Heliophobia, or any other type of specific phobia is genetics, environmental or both, the best and the most effective way of treating them is with using a combination of both biological treatments (drugs) with cognitive treatment (for example CBT/exposure therapy).
Titles to read
by Saba Syed Razvi
- Specific Phobias: Pharmacotherapeutic options
by Jarnail Singh and Janardhan Singh
- Mastery of your Specific Phobia
by Martin M. Antony, Michelle G. Craske, et al
- Overcoming Specific Phobia – Client Manual (Best Practices Series) by Edmund Bourne PhD (1998-05-01)
Frequently Asked Questions
Q1) What causes Heliophobia?
Heliophobia can be a result of a number of reasons such as, a genetic predisposition or some past-traumatic event.
Q2) Are medicines the only effective treatment for Heliophobia?
No. Medicines are effective, but not the only treatment that works for Heliophobia. Other cognitive therapies like CBT, DBT or exposure therapy play a major role in helping one get rid of their fears.
Q3) What are the symptoms of Heliophobia?
Anxiety, panic attacks, nausea or migraine are few of the symptoms, out of many, that one experiences when suffering from Heliophobia.
Q4) What is Heliophobia?
Heliophobia a specific phobia. It is the irrational fear one has of the sun or sunlight. They suffer extreme anxiety when exposed to the sun.