Blood-curling screams of…delight? Understanding the fun in fear

Your heart rate spikes. Your muscles tighten. Your pupils dilate. Your senses are acutely heightened. You are afraid, and fear has activated your autonomic fight or flight reflexes. Biologically, our brain’s amygdala has alerted the rest of body that we’re in danger, and we’ve entered into survival mode. We become hyper aware of our surroundings to protect us from our perceived risk.

Fear is a highly functional, evolutionary response that keeps us alive. In it’s most atavistic form, it helped protect caveman from being eaten by wild animals or falling off cliffs. The feeling of fear is counterintuitive to our most basic instincts, so certainly we should avoid situations that would induce this response. Right? Yet against our best biological judgment, we seek it out, especially around this time of year. We’ll even pay money to experience it. We watch horror movies, visit haunted houses and engage in other Halloween thrills. If fear is indicative of danger, why do we deliberately make ourselves afraid? Why is being scared so much fun?

“Safe ways to feel fear are entertainment. You get the adrenaline rush, and we actually feel accomplished when we survive whatever fearful situation we put ourselves in. It’s controlled terror,” Central Wyoming Counseling Center Chief Clinical Officer Joe Forscher said.

Fear-inducing experiences ranging from rollercoasters to Stephen King novels to spooky corn mazes allow us to flirt with danger on our own terms. We choose to enter into the haunted house, we willfully move from one terrifying room to the next, and we leave feeling stronger because we managed to complete the task, even though our amygdala was screaming at us to run. Our rational brains overrule our fight or flight instincts, because we know that the zombies, blood-stained axes and creepy clowns that we’re seeing aren’t actually a threat. It’s a biological “have your cake and eat it too.”

While we share this primitive instinct that controls our physical responses to dangerous conditions with animals, humans experience fear cognitively, as well. We have anxiety about the future and our emotions. A monkey will never have an existential crisis, but humans can fear loneliness, commitment or next month’s bills. Forscher says this can be just as beneficial as our response to physically dangerous situations.

“We look into the future and worry. Worry can help us, but the problem comes in when that becomes maladaptive, and we unnecessarily project negative outcomes. That runs a risk of become a self-fulfilling prophecy. If we can learn to channel this anxiety, it becomes productive,” he explained.

Fear does not have to be in the form of a debilitating phobia to adversely impact us, and our lives don’t have to have horror movies plot twists to feel frightening. Ordinary fears like balancing work and family, building relationships or stress management can all feel overwhelming or even unresolvable, but it’s these kind of anxieties that professional help can effectively manage.

The Central Wyoming Counseling Center’s team of counselors and therapists can guide you through all of the scary parts of life. A mental health professional can find solutions that fit your unique fears and challenges.

Forscher says that bravery isn’t the absence of fear. It’s staying in control when you’re afraid. It’s being mindful of consequences and realities. So this month, enjoy and engage in the thrills of Halloween. But if your fears are rooted in something a little more real, call Central Wyoming Counseling Center at 237.9583 today.

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