Scary movies, haunted houses, creepy crawlies that go bump in the night…yes, please! If you’re like me, you enjoy a good scare. The anticipation as you wander through the haunted house, knowing that someone – or something – is waiting to jump out at you at any second. Startles and screams followed by laughter, a delightful release. In a controlled, realistically safe situation, feeling fear can be fun – a real treat, if you will.
If you’re not like me in this regard, that’s ok. Lots of people hate scary movies and rollercoasters and the like. The reality is, lots of people truly hate the feeling of fear itself, even when it’s intentional, even when they know it’s a trick, that there’s no real danger present. Honestly, that makes a lot of sense. By design, anxiety is unpleasant. It’s our body’s built in warning system, created to keep us safe and alive. Our heart rate goes up, we go into fight or flight mode. Fear is an intense human emotion with strong physical symptoms that, even when there is no actual threat, is incredibly uncomfortable. It feels so icky so that we’re highly motivated to get rid of it by avoiding or escaping and, by doing so, returning to safety and security.
This is an excellent feature when it comes to avoiding car accidents or dangerous situations, but fear can also hold us back from taking physically safe but socially or emotionally uncomfortable steps, like being vulnerable, going for a big goal, or making a change.
It keeps us alive. It holds us back. It can be fun. It can be awful. It’s a trick AND a treat, depending on the situation.
Understanding the Fear System
Fine tuning your relationship with fear and anxiety is one of the most empowering tasks to take on. Learning to be open in the face of it – to venture boldly into those real and metaphorical haunted houses, is a life expanding move. And to get there, you have to know what you’re working with. You have to understand the ins and outs of our fear system.
Here’s some interesting info to know. The part of our brain that is primarily responsible for fear and anxiety (the limbic system, with its superstar the amygdala), continually scans looking for signs that indicate potential threat. Unfortunately, anxiety can’t tell the difference between real and imagined threats. When we watch scary movies or go through those haunted corn mazes, we’re capitalizing on that fact. We experience the fear response even though we’re not truly in danger. It’s a brain trick…and a treat for those of us who enjoy it.
Here’s where it gets interesting to think about. We have another part of our brain that is capable of imagining, right? We daydream, speculate, plan, anticipate. We worry. That’s just imagining possible bad things that can happen, almost like an internal private horror movie. And our adorably strong but primitive anxiety system can’t tell the difference, so it sounds the alarms.
Think about it, if those things you worry about were actually happening, it would make complete sense to feel anxious or afraid, wouldn’t it? And you’d be well-served to let anxiety guide your decisions and do what you need to avoid or escape those bad things. But they’re not happening in the outside world. They’re only happening in your inside world. You’re imagining it. And your anxiety system is responding, just like it does to a scary movie or haunted house. The difference here, though, is that you may not realize what’s happening, and that makes the anxiety feel real and meaningful. These mental scenarios mean danger!
Nope. It’s a trick!
Don’t Fall for Fear’s Tricks
This year as I watch my first Michael Meyers movies (yes, I somehow made it to middle age without ever seeing one), when I feel scared, I’ll tell myself it’s just a movie, and I’ll take comfort in that. I’ll even enjoy the sensations of fear as I experience them. I’ll laugh at my exaggerated startle response and giggle at my gasps because I know I’m safe and that this is all just for fun. I 100% believe that anxiety is not bad, that it can be helpful sometimes.
And when your mind starts playing whatever scary movie it loves to give you, tell yourself something similar. Say, “That’s just the You’re Going to Get Fired movie or the Someone is Going to Get Sick story or the Everyone Will Get Mad at Me saga.” Remind yourself that it’s ok to feel anxious. That it’s just a trick.
Interested in Learning More?
Check out this episode of the Building Psychological Strength podcast episode.