Are you Afraid of the Dark?

hwIt’s that time of the year again. The temperatures are dropping, the leaves are changing and ghosts, witches and ghouls are starting to appear. As a child and even now into adulthood, fall has always been one of my favorite seasons and Halloween one of my favorite holidays. Now don’t get me wrong, I love the crisp air, the apple cider donuts, scarfs and pumpkin spiced lattes, but my favorite is the spookiness that comes with Halloween! As a child, I always wanted our house to be the scariest on the block. I loved haunted hayrides and would spend hour’s binge watching scary movies. Admittingly, as a child, there were plenty of nights that I had a hard time falling asleep, wondering what that strange sound was or if something was creeping around in my room while lying there in the dark. All those scary movies didn’t help I’m sure, but I craved more and every year would look forward to the thrills, shrieks and scares.

So what is it that draws us to the things that scare us the most?     Believe it or not, there is a science to it and most of it has to do with chemical reactions. When we’re afraid, our bodies release different chemicals that can contribute to feeling good under the right circumstances. These positive feelings are caused by different neurotransmitters and hormones released when the body feels fear. Due to an evolutionary process, our bodies react to a state of fear by using the chemical adrenaline.   Adrenaline is a hormone released from the adrenal glands and its major action, together with noradrenaline, is to prepare the body for ‘fight or flight.’

How does this apply to the enjoyment that comes with being scared? Well, a lot of it has to do with the “flood” effect. When we get scared, we experience a rush, or a flood of adrenaline, along with a release of endorphins and dopamine. The biochemical rush can result in a pleasure-filled, opioid-like sense of euphoria. This is one reason why people crave adrenaline rushes. Another reason has to do with our frontal lobe. The frontal lobe is the thinking part of our brain. It modulates the more primitive response and tells you that you’re safe.  So, if you’re in a situation like a haunted house and something jumps out at you, your body goes into fight or flight mode, but your frontal lobe still knows you’re safe and will calm you down, allowing the situation to be enjoyable. Another way to think about this, is our brain essentially being hijacked by the flight response, give us the “rush,” allowing us to feel pleasure rather than despair.

Where do you fall on the spectrum of thrill seeking? Are you one to jump at any opportunity to be spooked and scared? Are you first in line to the haunted house or the new scary movie at the theaters? Or do find yourself taking a hard pass, avoiding anything that might give you a fright? Ever wonder what makes you different then your thrill seeking friend? Well, science shows that it might have to do with personality and past life experiences. Since everyone has different personalities and temperaments, it only makes sense that this might play a factor in how people react to fear. While we may start out life with a certain temperament, life experiences can change that. Past experiences may play a role into how we encounter fearful situations and how our bodies react. According to Margee Kerr, Ph.D., the author of “Scream: Chilling Adventures in the Science of Fear,” research has also showed that certain personality traits make people more prone to enjoy and seek out scary situations. The traits are: (1) being conscientiousness, (2) being open to experiences, (3) being more extroverted and (4) being more agreeable.

In addition to personality and previous life experiences, it may also have to do with the shape (yes shape) of our brains! We know that every brain experiences fear and anxiety differently, but according to a 2007 study, you may be more vulnerable to it depending on how your brain is shaped. The study found that individuals who suffer from anxiety already have prefrontal cortexes that look a little different from folks who do not suffer from anxiety. What’s more, the study found that depending on which anxiety disorder you suffer from, the brain works differently in each. Individuals who suffer from fight-or-flight panic disorders and PTSD had an underactive prefrontal cortex, while those with worry-based anxiety, like OCD and generalized anxiety disorder, seemed to have an overactive prefrontal cortex. Therefore, if you are someone who already suffers from anxiety, chances are that you will most likely pass on the spooky fun this Halloween season.

So for all you non-spooky seekers, sit back and enjoy all the pleasures that fall has to offer while eating a warm apple cider donut or drinking a delicious pumpkin spiced latte while wrapped in a warm scarf taking in the cool fresh air. However, if you are one who seeks out the thrills and scares, cheers to an exciting (and safe) spooky Halloween!

 

By: Amanda Keller, LCSW-R, SAP, EAP Clinical Director