It is around this time of year that scaring becomes a big deal. Houses are strung with Halloween decorations from spiders to ghosts and ghouls, and then often splashed with ‘blood’ as well. Families and friends play tricks on each other or gather together in dark rooms to watch scary movies or tell terrifying tales. Haunted houses make a killing too – if you’ll excuse the pun! Of course, it’s not just in October that we liked to be scared either. In fact, all year round, people partake in extreme sports or adrenaline pumping activities and the scare industry is big business. We make an event of being scared, eagerly anticipating it and taking a thrill from it afterwards. In short: we love it!
What’s odd about this is that should any of these activities have a genuine, real-life affect, we’d be terrified – and not in a good way, as intended. Most people would not want to be put into a genuinely life threatening situation and fear is our brain’s way of protecting us from that. It warns us of a threat and helps us to react accordingly, but when it comes to thrill seeking, a lot of people thrive on a good scare. So we know that some people enjoy it. The question is, though, can a scare actually be good for you?
The answer? Absolutely it can, and this is why:
The first and perhaps most obvious benefit of being scared is the natural high that comes with it. When faced with a potentially threatening situation, our bodies go into what is known as the fight or flight response. At its base, this is a release of adrenaline that allows us to either flee from the situation or act quickly and efficiently to fight it. At a more complex level, it’s a physiological change. Our heart rate increases, our breath quickens, we begin to sweat, our muscle tense, and our concentration focuses narrowly on the perceived threat. Our brains are also flooded with chemicals such as dopamine and endorphins – yes, the same ones that give you a buzz after exercising.
It’s not fight or flight that is, in itself, enjoyable. In a genuinely threatening situation, we wouldn’t get a buzz from this response, but rather would be able to react in a way that better suited the circumstances. Dr. Margee Kerr, a scare specialist at Robert Morris University says the response becomes enjoyable when we know that we are away from harm. Once we accept that we are safe, we are free to enjoy the chemical rush and enjoy that sense of relief – or even of achievement – that we feel once we get through a haunted house or scary movie.
There are more substantial benefits of being scared though, like being taught how to handle real-life situations. Michael Fanselow, a behavioural neuroscientist at UCLA claims that watching scary movies can actually help us to develop strategies to avoid threats in our real lives. Fanselow argues that young adults in particular need experiences in order to learn appropriate responses to situations and although they are often unrealistic, scary movies can actually offer those sorts of experiences. Whilst watching movies, “you have more control, your automatic fear responses are still strong but not completely overtaking you,” he says, “so what we learn is more how to face and deal with our fears.”
Or To Treat
In a similar way, learning from this cognitive reaction to being scared could also be used to treat anxiety dysfunctions such as phobias. Frank Andrew of Knox College, Illinois, points out that repeated exposure to a fearful stimuli will lead to the brain getting used to it and thus, no longer finding it fearful. By using this cognitive therapy technique along with medication, it is believed that 80% of phobias are improved. So facing your fears to overcome them can actually be true.
Weight Loss Made Scary
And it gets even better. Being scared can even help with weight loss. Of course, weight loss in itself can be scary, especially if you’ve got a long way to go but it could be made easier – by being made scarier! The adrenaline rush, the increased heart rate and the quickened breathing can all burn up to 200 calories per scare. In fact, researchers at the University of Westminster in the UK have discovered that even watching a horror movie can have an effect. The average 90-minute movie, they claim, can burn an average of 113 calories – and the more times it makes you jump, the higher the calorie burn! The highest calorie burn was The Shining at 184 calories, quickly followed by Jaws and The Exorcist. Now if ever there was a reason to watch a scary movie, this is it – but perhaps leave the popcorn in the cupboard!
Being scared can give you a great thrill but research shows that it also has plenty of health benefits, from losing weight to feeling good. So every time you jump at something scary this Halloween, just think of the good that it’s doing you!
 Cited by Allegra Ringo, 2013, Why Do Some Brains Enjoy Fear? [online], Available at: http://www.theatlantic.com/health/archive/2013/10/why-do-some-brains-enjoy-fear/280938/ [accessed: 10/20/2015]
 Cited by Justin Sedor, 2013, Fear Actually Does Your Brain Good, [online], Available at: http://www.refinery29.com/2013/10/56326/fear-benefits-effects, [accessed: 10/20/2015]
 Cited by Alene Dawson, 2013, A Halloween Scare Can Sharpen the Brain, [online], Available at: http://articles.latimes.com/2013/oct/26/health/la-he-scary-movies-20131026, [accessed: 10/20/2015]
 Choi, ibid.
 Ben Child, 2012, Scare Yourself Thin: horror movies help burn calories, study finds, [online], Available at: http://www.theguardian.com/film/2012/oct/29/horror-movies-help-burn-calories, [accessed: 10/20/2015]
The benefits of a good scare by UrbanSculpt staff writer Victoria Froud, MA is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License.
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