Happy Haunting: Why We Love Being Scared
Horror movies, haunted houses, true crime podcasts, roller coasters: we (or at least many of us) love a healthy dose of thrill in our lives. Fear both empowers and provokes us, like two extreme sides of the same coin. This week, the #TRN team explores our love of—and fascination with—fear.
How Fear Helps Us
As long as living things have existed on the earth, so has fear. And fear, in and of itself, is not a bad thing. “Fear is a natural and biological condition that we all experience,” says Zachary Sikora, PsyD. As a clinical psychologist at Northwestern Medicine, his work includes studying one of humanity’s most complex emotions.
“It’s important that we experience fear because it keeps us safe.”
The “Fight or Flight” Response
Our bodies’ reaction to fear is both rapid and highly potent. When we sense a threat, the amygdala sends signals from the brain to our nervous system, where our sympathetic nervous system (keeper of our fight or flight response) takes the wheel from its partner, the parasympathetic nervous system (known for the body’s “rest and digest” functions.
From there, the sympathetic nervous system:
triggers the release of powerful hormones like adrenaline and cortisol
speeds your breathing and heart rate
raises your blood pressure
pushes blood flow from your heart to your limbs
heightens your senses for better threat perception
Now, in the face of the threat, your body is primed to fight its way out or to flee as quickly as possible. RELATED: Looking for a change of speed from fight or flight? For more background on how our parasympathetic or “rest and digest” system complements and counteracts our sympathetic nervous system, check out our article on the vagus nerve.
Why We Love to be Scared
So why would we invoke this intense physiological response for fun? There are a few reasons for that.
It’s a Rush
First, remember when we mentioned that the fight-or-flight response prompts the release of powerful hormones like adrenaline and cortisol? Well, with that dose of adrenaline comes an accompanying rush of endorphins and dopamine.
Endorphins are stress relief hormones that improve the mood. Their release is commonly associated with exercise (ever heard of “runner’s high?”), sex, acupuncture, massage, and eating. TLDR: endorphins make you feel good.
Dopamine plays a role in numerous bodily functions—memory, focus, movement, learning, and more—but it’s become widely recognized for its place in our internal pleasure and reward center. Dopamine is famous for getting us motivated to chase more dopamine, i.e., more pleasure and rewards.
So, if our bodies are hardwired to rapidly release a truckload of “feel-good” chemicals in the face of fear, skydiving, and haunted houses allow us to experience these rewards within a controlled (or at least semi-controlled) setting. We get the rush of feeling alive but in a “safe” way.
It’s an Accomplishment
We, as humans, love the feeling of overcoming a challenge. So whether it’s diving out of a plan or simply conquering the latest Halloween sequel without covering our eyes, facing fear is a major accomplishment. And once again, the controlled setting allows us to face it while still maintaining some of the potential unknowns.
“Avoiding the object of fear actually increases the fear of the object,” says psychologist Michael Telch. Exposure therapy, for instance, involves directly facing fear and is sometimes recommended for people who would otherwise risk significant hindrances to their lifestyle. The exposure itself is what allows the brain to retrain itself out of panic and into a healthier long-term response.
It Helps Us Deal With Things
Just as a good cry can help us get heavy emotions out of our system, there can also be something cathartic about a good scream or whatever your full-body fear response entails. Engaging in fear outside an actual threat or survival situation allows us to tap into our deeper, often unspoken feelings. When we consume horror or true crime, we inevitably simmer on themes of death, loss, survival, trust, and relationships, whether personal or societal. After all, who of us hasn’t sat around the fire debating who’d be on their zombie apocalypse team or how they’d respond to a home intruder scenario? We run “fear drills” all the time, pondering how far we’d go to survive, how we’d deal with traumatic family loss, or how we’d respond to global catastrophe. Synthesized fear helps us cope.
Love a good scare? Tell us about your favorite spooky movies or thrills.
HAPPY HALLOWEEN FROM #TRN!
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