Halloween Horrors; Healthy Fear is Fine, But Where Is The Line?
This past weekend I personally found myself defending my opinion that horror movies were unpleasant and life was in fact scary enough, so thanks, but no I don’t want to go to the haunted house. But for many people, Halloween is a time to delve into the spooky, the scary, and the downright disturbing. So why do so many people enjoy being scared? This week we take a look at why people scare themselves on purpose, and when is too much
First, what happens in our bodies when we are scared? In short, a lot.
Fear is a protective mechanism we developed long ago. As a result, many of our fear are no longer relevant, but our bodies and minds haven't gotten the memo yet. For some context, as humans when we get scared our minds and bodies kick into fight or flight mode. The amygdala is ‘in charge’ of this state and when triggered with frightening stimuli, it causes the release of the hormones adrenaline and cortisol. The release of adrenaline in turn triggers a rush of dopamine and endorphins, which feel good to us. Some other effects of the release of these hormones include an increase in heart rate and blood pressure, dilated pupils, and other heightened senses. Blood is also diverted away from our digestive system and other systems that are not immediately needed to fight or run away. All these physiological responses are triggered with one goal in mind - to get away from the scary thing. This allows us to run faster, sense more, and ultimately escape. However, as modern day humans we don’t usually have to run away from bears anymore. So while our body responds this way, which did once serve a legitimate purpose, being in this state often or long term stress can have lasting negative health effects.
It's not all bad though. Besides the dopamine and endorphin rush, there are several reasons people might like getting scared on purpose. The major consideration is the knowledge that at the end of the day, you really are safe. When people get tickets to a scary movie, they know it's just a movie. Or when they enter a haunted house, they know it's just actors in there and not real threats. The knowledge of safety means that rather than being a breeding ground for depression and anxiety, the fear people experience releases adrenaline, dopamine, and endorphins. Because people know they are safe, these chemicals induce euphoria rather than anxiety. That is why you see people laughing on the way out of a haunted house or on the way out of the theater after seeing the latest horror movie.
Getting scared in this type of setting also allows for socially acceptable expressions of intense emotions. Oftentimes we are not supposed to be loud, scream, or run away when we are scared. Imagine getting told to stop by your boss's office before the end of the day and reacting by screaming. It probably wouldn't be received well… But in the cases of horror films, haunted houses, roller coasters, ect it is a perfectly acceptable reaction. Having an emotional reaction can release some pent up energy, and make us feel better in the long run.
Overcoming a scary situation also gives us a sense of accomplishment. Making it through the scary situation means we faced something scary or uncomfortable, and came out the other end ok. This kind of exposure too and overcoming of fear can help us ‘prove ourselves’, which is ultimately rewarding. Even if we know we are in no real danger, it is still satisfying to know we made it through a scary situation. While the sense of accomplishment is greater when your ‘alone’, experiencing scary things together also can intensify the emotions that come up, and can cause bonding with the people you are with.
We can also learn from some of the spooky stories out there. The themes in scary movies often reflect real world issues and fears, and can help us come to terms with the environment we live in. A prime example of this is the fact that with the onset of the COVID pandemic, horror movies like “Outbreak” shot up in popularity. Exposing yourself to scary stories which end well can help you feel more prepared for real life challenges, especially if the themes are consistent with real life issues.
Scary movies and situations also help us explore our darker side, without actually causing any harm. Even if you find yourself thinking about how something the criminal in the podcast you are listening to made a rookie mistake and how you would have done things differently, you get to think about it in a completely harmless way. This is a very natural response. Exposing yourself to scary stories can also make you think about how the people in them are so different than you, and can highlight your own moral code.
This may be a dark point, but the spooky stories told around halloween often include death. Usually they are pretty awful deaths. But, exposure to this actually makes most people more comfortable with the idea of death. Counter intuitive, I know. But, death is inevitable, and when we start to think about how some are horrible, we also start to think about what we want for ourselves. This makes people more comfortable with the idea of a ‘pleasant’ death.
So, ok. There are reasons to purposefully spook yourself after all. But it's important to know your limits. As described, fear causes real changes in the body. When in a controlled environment, and for short periods of time this can be ok and sometimes even good. But chronic stress and fear has real long term effects. Chronic stress has been linked to a marinade of health conditions, many of which physical. While it's easy to look up the long list of physical health effects of chronic stress, the mental effects can be just as harmful, and are often actually the root cause of many of the physical symptoms.
Some things to consider are making sure you or who is being exposed to the scary situation really understands they are safe. Kids especially have active imaginations, and might not always understand that they aren’t really in danger. This might also be true for older kids and adults susceptible to anxiety. When we experience fear without fully understanding we are safe, it has a lasting impact on our nervous system and makes us more susceptible for depression and anxiety, as well as physical symptoms like high blood pressure, unintended weight gain/loss, digestive issues, and more down the road. So if you are planning on watching a scary movie with your friends, make sure every one is comfortable with it. Or if you kiddo wants to try out a haunted house, make sure its age appropriate. It is best to avoid fearful stimuli altogether if you aren’t 100% sure everyone knows they are completely safe going in.
The type of spook you expose yourself to also matters. Expose yourself to something you do not particularly connect with, in other words something that is completely fantasy to you. This will typically give you more of the adrenaline boost, without the long lasting stress. However, if you are partaking in purposeful fear based around something you believe in, you might be risking some longer term stress. For example, if you are someone who is religious, or believes in certain themes within religion, it would be better to stick with stories featuring vampires and werewolves rather than demons, angels, ect. This ties back to the idea of feeling safe. If you don’t believe in vampires, you are more likely to get scared but know at the end of the day you are safe from them. If you truly believe in demons and angels, exposing yourself to a frightening version of them might not be perceived as safe by your brain. You should also steer clear of any frightening stories which could bring up trauma from your own life.
It's All Fun And Games, Until It's Not. We Are Here If You Need Support.
Maybe the last haunted house or movie was just a little too much for you, and now you find yourself glancing over your shoulder everywhere you go, or checking under your bed before falling asleep. ‘Healthy’ fear can go to far, and in those cases there are people here to help. Maybe you weren’t even triggered by a spooky Halloween theme, but simply an every day life issue that triggered some past trauma. These days, the nightly news is more than enough to set of a heightened, stressed out, and/or depressive state in most people.
If you think that something this Halloween season has pushed you too far into panic or anxiety, we at Thrive are here to support you. If you think you’ve been struggling with anxiety for a while now, but didn’t know where to turn, we are glad you found your way to our site. We specialize in making people feel safe and welcome, and helping them move past traumas and triggers. By teaching the brain to better self regulate, it learns not to start the panic cascade of adrenaline, cortisol, and the physiological symptoms that come with them. The brain also learns not to dwell and ruminate on worries, and how to move past what used to be triggers in a calm way.
At the end of the day, we at Thrive want you to enjoy your Halloween, and life, in the way that you see fit. If that includes some purposeful fear, we support you. But if you think you took it a little to far, or if you are ready to tackle anxiety, fear, and/or PTSD symptoms you know you have had for a while but didn’t know where to go for help, we are here for you. Just give us a call, email, or text and we will get you on the path for a happier, less jumpy life.