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Why Do We Feel Fear?

We’ve all felt it before — the twist in the stomach, the jolt of lightning down our spines, the tingling sense that something is wrong but we don’t know why. Fear comes in many forms, and it’s terrified humans for centuries. Since mankind first huddled together near fires at night, hoping that noise just outside the light of the flames was a bird or a squirrel, we’ve known fear intimately. But why do we feel this unpleasant feeling, and what causes it? Even more incredibly, why do some people actually enjoy the hair-raising terror that comes with Halloween, haunted attractions, or scary movies?

Why Do We Get Scared?

At its most primitive and basics levels, fear is a survival instinct. It harkens back to those prehistoric humans huddled around a fire, when the shadows in the trees were a very real threat. In fact, it goes even further back than that, to our earliest animal ancestors. Animals that felt fear were more likely to not only anticipate danger but react in a way that allowed them to survive. This made the animal more likely to reproduce and pass on its genes (and survival methods) to the next generation. This has been called a Survival Optimization System (SOS) by scholars as a way to study the evolution and ecology of fear in humans.

While we may not be running from wild animals or avoiding natural dangers during our average day-to-day lives, fear has stuck around. It’s hardly a useless emotion — its triggers have just changed as the dangers shifted. Instead of a dark forest, we now fear a shady alleyway late at night. Instead of a raging river or a steep fall from a tree, we fear hazardous driving conditions (or other drivers). Instead of a predatory animal lurking in the bushes, we fear creepy clowns. Fear remains, the dangers have just changed.

What Happens to Our Bodies When We Get Scared?

Fear, and the SOS that accompanies it, is truly an incredible emotion because of the number of the physiological changes it makes to our bodies. An essential part of the SOS is the fight-or-flight mechanism, so as we feel fear, our body has to prepare for both possibilities. To do this, a number of organs go into overdrive to create the responses that are programmed to keep you safe:

  • Heart: Increased heart rate leads to more blood flow and more oxygenated blood throughout your body.
  • Circulatory System: Dilated blood vessels serving your muscles lead more oxygen to your muscles, while constricted blood vessels serving your digestive system allow more blood to service your muscles and brain.
  • Lungs: Dilated bronchi in the lungs and an increased respiration rate means more oxygen in the blood to help your body function at a higher capacity.
  • Liver: Better conversion of glycogen into glucose means more glucose is available to be used by your muscles and brain cells, improving their function.

  • Skin: Blood flow to your skin is reduced and redirected to the muscles and brain, causing your skin to flush or become paler.
  • Eyes: Pupils dilate, allowing in more light and making your vision sharper and clearer.
  • Brain: Hormones in your brain increase your focus and cause your thoughts to quicken, allowing you to assess the danger better.

How Can We Overcome Our Fears?

This activation of our survival instinct utilizes multiple parts of our brain and several different hormones to keep us safe. The downside of this is that humans sometimes find it difficult to shut off, which can lead to stress and anxiety conditions. While the fight-or-flight mechanism is incredible, it’s only good in short doses. Long-term bouts of excessive stress can take an intense physical toll on our bodies. In the case of chronic stress or anxiety, it’s important to seek professional help so that you can regain control of your life.

Most of the time, there’s no need to really do anything more than take a few deep breaths and calm yourself down.

Not every fear is a chronic anxiety, though. In some cases, you may be dealing with a phobia (technically an anxiety condition) or acute bout of fear (like a jump scare or frightening incident). Most of the time, you can feel these fears and recover fairly quickly afterward. In those instances, there’s no need to really do anything more than take a few deep breaths and calm yourself down. If you have a severe phobia that you can’t avoid, you may be able to seek treatment or therapy to help you live with or conquer your phobia.

Why Do Some People Enjoy Being Scared?

While most of us may look to avoid our fears or to overcome them, some people like to seek out the terrifying thrills that being scared can bring. The idea may seem alien to you, but there are several interesting reasons why. First, there’s a sense of pride or satisfaction that comes from proving our courage. There’s also a fascination or interest in bizarre, forbidden, or dark subjects. One study also found that people who tend to enjoy scary experiences experienced less adrenaline and cortisol and higher levels of dopamine from those experiences than the test subjects who didn’t. This indicates there’s certainly a hormonal or physiological component to it all, too.

Horror movies and other controlled scary experiences may actually come with health benefits.

Surprisingly, they may be onto something. Horror movies and other controlled scary experiences may actually come with health benefits. From burning calories to helping you to deal with anxiety, terror can be good for you, as long as it’s in a safe environment and you experience a catharsis or recover from the fear.

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This time of year — when the days grow shorter and the nights darker — is a time we celebrate fear in all its forms. When you really think about it, this makes sense. Fear may be an unpleasant feeling, but it’s likely the reason we’re all here. Fear kept our ancestors safe long enough to lead to us, and it continues to keep us safe to this day. Whether it’s that voice in the back of our heads saying “That cliff looks a little steep, maybe avoid it” or the sheer terror we feel when we watch our favorite horror movies, we encounter fear a lot throughout our lives. Whatever the cause of that fear, it’s often good for us, whether it’s keeping us out of danger or having surprising benefits for our health!