What Happens in the Brain When You’re Afraid?
On a biological level, we know that, when you’re afraid, certain hormones are released in the body to prepare you for a fight–or–flight response. The primary hormones involved in this process include adrenaline (also known as epinephrine), norepinephrine, and cortisol.
These three hormones give your body a boost of energy, channel your focus, and divert blood flow to your major muscle groups. Once this happens, your body is primed to respond to the perceived danger.
If you don’t enjoy the heart-pounding startles, you might wonder why anyone in their right mind would put themselves through this experience on purpose. Yes, the body gets a surge of anxious energy, but you also experience the release of neurotransmitters like dopamine.
Dopamine is what is commonly associated with the brain’s “pleasure center.” It’s a source of the excitement and relief that comes after a scare and when your brain realizes you were never in any real danger. For spook-seekers, this is the experience that makes the scare worthwhile.
What Exactly are the Benefits?
Dr. Margee Kerr, the staff sociologist at ScareHouse, tells The Atlantic all about the reasons why some brains enjoy fear. In the interview, she reminds us that the enjoyment of scaring and being scared goes back to the telling of ghost stories around a campfire, gothic writings of the 19th century, and tales of creatures like the Chupacabra or the Loch Ness Monster. As human beings, we have had this interest for a long time.
Social connections, she explains, are part of the reason we love to be frightened. Happiness and fear both initiate the release of oxytocin (the love hormone), and help us bond with the people we are experiencing these emotions with. Kerr shares an article by Shelley Taylor, Tend and Befriend: Biobehavioral Bases of Affiliation Under Stress, that demonstrates how a special closeness is developed with those who are with us when we are in an excited state. More importantly, it stresses how this can be a very good thing!
When you tend to or receive care from someone in a moment of fear or anxiety, the chance that you will befriend them increases. According to Dr. Kerr, this is because human beings need each other during periods of stress, so the body responds chemically in ways that help form a bond with others who are in the experience with us. Of course, this is limited to the experience being a positive one that does not actually harm you in any way.
This is why you see people huddled together as they tread through a darkened maze or haunted exhibit, and why popcorn-flinging horror movie nights are also enjoyed worldwide.
The Best Place to Enjoy a Good Scare
The best place to get your chills and thrills is someplace that poses no real threat to your safety. You brain needs to know that your body is not in any real danger after your automatic fight-or-flight response kicks in. Dr. Kerr reflects on how many times she’s seen a person scream and jump at the ScareHouse and immediately after start smiling and laughing. It really is interesting to consider how quickly the brain can process our situation and let the rest of our body know if the fear was just a false alarm.
Are There Drawbacks?
As nearly every suspense movie has proven, anything can have a dark side. Maybe don’t drag your friends to a fright-filled attraction if they really don’t want to go. Sometimes the aversion has roots in trauma, PTSD, or phobia. Being conscious of what is age–appropriate is also important. This is because children are often unable to differentiate between feigned danger and what’s real. What you intended to be a fun experience may end up being traumatic for a child. Sometimes, you just have to make a judgment call, but doing so can help ensure that everyone has a good time and is able to enjoy the spooky excitement.
For some tips from our dietitian on how to treat yourself this Halloween without all the guilt, read her post on Tricks and Treats for Halloween Cheats. To access our monthly blog post highlights, subscribe to our newsletter today!
Ringo, Allegra. “Why Do Some Brains Enjoy Fear?” The Atlantic, Atlantic Media Company, 31 Oct. 2013, www.theatlantic.com/health/archive/2013/10/why-do-some-brains-enjoy-fear/280938/.