Understanding the Science of Fear
Fear. It’s an emotional response to a perceived threat, either real or imagined. Some people — roller-coaster fans and horror movie buffs — thrive on it, while other people avoid it. Have you ever wondered why?
Fear is Physical
Fear is experienced in your mind, but it triggers a strong physical reaction in your body. As soon as you recognize fear, your amygdala (small organ in the middle of your brain) goes to work. It alerts your nervous system, which sets your body’s fear response into motion. Stress hormones like cortisol and adrenaline are released. Your blood pressure and heart rate increase. You start breathing faster. Even your blood flow changes — blood actually flows away from your heart and into your limbs, making it easier for you to start throwing punches, or run for your life. Your body is preparing for fight-or-flight.
But as some parts of your brain are revving up, others are shutting down. When the amygdala senses fear, the cerebral cortex (area of the brain that harnesses reasoning and judgment) becomes impaired, making it difficult to make good decisions or think clearly. As a result, you might scream and throw your hands up when approached by an actor in a haunted house, unable to rationalize that the threat is not real.
Fear Can Become Pleasure
But why do people who love roller coasters, haunted houses and horror movies enjoy getting caught up in those fearful, stressful moments? Because the thrill doesn’t necessarily end when the ride or movie ends. Through the excitation transfer process, when your scary experience is over, your body and brain are still aroused. That means that any positive feelings you experience afterward are intensified, leading you to feel fantastic and causing you to crave more. This is how people become hooked on the adrenaline rush of fear.
Fear Can Help Alleviate Anxiety
Just as fear can leave you wanting more, it can also help you alleviate anxiety.
If you have anxiety, watching horror movies in which others suffer through situations worse than your own (think secluded cabin and masked murderer) might help you forget your problems and focus on something else for a while.
Some researchers think watching scary movies might even help people consciously or subconsciously make sense of things that happened in the past. Childhood fears of clowns, spiders, abandoned houses, ghosts, vampires? Watching horror movies may help you confront things that haunted you in the past and allow you to find a sense of comfort and peace, whether you mean to or not.
There’s a Difference Between Fear and Phobia
If you’re slightly uneasy about swimming in the ocean after watching Jaws, the movie did what it set out to do. But if you find yourself terrorized, traumatized and unable to function at the mere thought of basking on the beach, you might be experiencing more than just fear.
The difference between fear and phobia is simple. Fears are common reactions to events or objects. But a fear becomes a phobia when it interferes with your ability to function and maintain a consistent quality of life. If you start taking extreme measures to avoid water, spiders or clowns, you may have a phobia.
Clowns Aren’t Funny for Some
Fear or phobia of clowns is a particularly interesting phenomenon. Usually, we fear things that are perceived to be dangerous, such as sharks, snakes, heights or closed spaces. So why would anyone be scared of clowns, which are meant to bring laughter and amusement?
Psychologists have identified two reasons. One is that we may be disturbed by the fact that we can’t see a clown’s true face. We rely on facial expressions to really understand a person’s emotions and motivations. When we can’t see that, we’re left wondering what’s really going on under all that makeup. Sometimes we’re more afraid of what we can’t see than what we can.
The second reason we may dislike clowns is because clowns are always happy and laughing. That might seem backwards, but constant joy isn’t normal or natural, and quickly becomes confusing. Consciously or subconsciously, we tend to distrust people who are always happy and laughing.
Take note, if you do have a fear or phobia of clowns, watching movies or TV shows about killer clowns certainly isn’t going to help ease your anxiety. Taking steps to realize that clowns are really just people wearing makeup might be a good approach, but watching a deranged character do horrible things will only reinforce your negative feelings.
Fear is a complex human emotion that can be positive and healthy, but it can also have negative consequences. If you have a fear or phobia that is impacting your life, you may want to speak to your primary care provider. He or she can be a great sounding board and help determine the kind of treatment you might need.