Why do we enjoy being scared?
It’s the most wonderful time of the year (ok, maybe the second-most). As the leaves start to crunch underfoot many of us take it upon ourselves to carve out menacing faces in pumpkins, adorn our houses with bats and cobwebs (as if they weren’t there before…), dress up as blood-thirsty vampires and regale each other with ghost stories (or at least watch our favourites) until the hairs on the back of our arms stand up. But why? Fear is at best an unpleasant feeling and at worst, a way of our brains telling us our lives are in imminent danger, so how can we enjoy frightening ourselves, or being frightened? What does our enjoyment of Halloween reveal about our human nature? And does our capacity to enjoy being scared give us a greater insight as to how we can manage our slightly more real (albeit less thrilling) mortal fears?
Whilst autumn is exceptional in its open embrace of the macabre through celebrations in the form of ‘Halloween’ in the US and the UK or ‘dia de los muertos’ in Mexico, we do seem to enjoy scaring ourselves in all seasons. It’s the basic premise of theme parks, extreme sports and the whole horror genre of film, none of which are confined to the darker months of the year. The big question is why? Aren’t we programmed to feel fear as a way to avoid danger rather than revel in it? Therefore shouldn’t we ultimately aim to avoid situations that make us feel afraid? Well yes, and no…
What happens to us when we’re scared?
When we feel afraid our brains elicit our fight-or-flight response. This response floods our system with a host of hormones; adrenaline, endorphins and dopamine. Dopamine, also known as the “feel good” hormone, might seem like an outlier here, but it’s necessary for us to have a fighting chance in life-threatening situations. These hormones create physical, visible changes through our body; from an increased heart rate (which pumps blood to the muscles, so they are ready to react), to the dilation of central blood vessels to vital organs (flooding them with oxygen and nutrients), and sky-rocketing our blood-glucose levels (equipping us with energy, should we need to act). For some of us, these changes in biochemistry are experienced as a sort of high, or thrill which we try to seek out and replicate (and so the term 'thrill-seeker' was born).
Are humans the ultimate thrill-seekers or scaredy-cats?
Crucially, our ability to enjoy feeling scared depends on our ability to know that we are safe. It’s a paradox of sorts. When we visit a Halloween haunted house, for example, our senses are triggered by frightening sounds, sights and movements; prompting our fight or flight response and activating a physical reaction (screaming, jumping out of our seats, or running away in certain instances), but our brains are able to process the fact that we are ultimately safe. What’s more is overcoming these faux-frightening experiences can give us a very real confidence boost; we faced our fears and we survived (even if we didn’t face any real danger) and a potent adrenaline rush is our reward.
Now, not all thrill-seekers are made equal. We all know someone (whether it’s our older brother, cousin or even our Dad) who trembles at the thought of Casper the Friendly Ghost. Theorists believe that this is because of the powerful connection between memory and the fight-or-flight response. Memories are triggered when our fight-or-flight response is activated in what are known as “flashbulb memories”. So, if you went to a haunted house when you were too young to know you were safe, you’re likely to feel afraid visiting them as an adult, as it will bring up the scary feelings you experienced as a child.
What can our enjoyment of fear teach us about managing fear in our daily lives?
Halloween presents an opportunity for us to acknowledge and confront some of our more fantastical fears in a safe and playful way. Most of our other fears tend to be a little more mundane, if equally as frightening; whether that’s the fear of not being in a loving partnership, feeling afraid of embarrassing ourselves, or even the fear of never finding a fulfilling career. What then can our ability to enjoy frightening experiences teach us about managing the more mundane fears that plague us the other 364 days of the year?
1- Feel the fear and do it anyway
As the title of the popular book, by Susan Jeffers, highlights, if we wait to overcome our feelings of fear before doing the thing that really scares us, we’ll end up waiting forever. On Halloween, we watch scary films or visit the haunted houses feeling afraid. We don’t wait for the fear to dissipate before we make our move. If we apply the same logic to the fears that haunt us day-to-day, it can empower us to address things that have long-plagued us.
As fear is an uncomfortable emotion, we have a tendency to want to avoid fear-inducing situations, even if those situations could ultimately enable us to live better in the long run. We might be afraid of public speaking, telling mum how we really feel, travelling alone, or pursuing a creative career path. The better we get at feeling the fear and doing it anyway, the more confident we become. Think about it; we not only survive the scary experiences but thrive after overcoming them (hello adrenaline rush).
2- Tell yourself you’re safe
In the haunted house example, we’re able to withstand creepy cackling and unsettling mirages because we know that, ultimately, they don’t pose any real danger to us. Equally (so long as we’re not doing anything legitimately life-threatening), with many of our own fears, reminding ourselves we're safe is crucial to being able to tackle them head-on. If your fear is getting the best of you when trying public speaking or going for a promotion - remind yourself that you're OK. Your life is not at risk and, whatever the outcome, you are safe. Trying small grounding techniques (deep breathing, counting, trying to move each toe individually) can help us feel safe and reaffirm a sense of security.
3- Being afraid is part of being human
We get it, we all want to avoid uncomfortable emotions. But if haunted houses at Halloween can teach us anything, it’s that there’s a lot of fun to be had in embracing life’s more frightening experiences. That’s not to say we should all go flinging ourselves from the cliffs and hoping for the best. Or seeking out things that scare us if that’s not our cup of tea.
Let's acknowledge that at times being afraid is a normal, natural part of what it means to be human. With that reckoning, perhaps we can let go of the judgement (whether that’s towards ourselves or others) around feeling fear in response to certain situations. Whilst what scares us may differ, feeling afraid is so very human, and in that we can learn to empathise with each other better.
Whether you’re a bit of a scaredy-cat or more of a thrill-seeker: Experiencing fear is a fundamental part of what it means to be human. Celebrations like Halloween allow us the opportunity to explore our fears in a safe and playful way - an approach that we can apply to overcoming fears in our day-to-day lives!