Fear is an unpleasant emotion experienced in response to a threat of danger. So, if fear means danger, why do some of us like being scared?Why do we choose to watch horror movies on a first date? Why do we enjoy haunted houses so much?
Well, some brains actually like being scared. And the science behind fear can explain why being scared sometimes makes us feel good.
Typically, we talk about the “fight or flight” response in the context of anxiety, which is interrelated to fear. However, this response also occurs in positive emotional states such as excitement or enjoyment. Neurobiologists suggest that that way we experience fear relates to context, or the environment in which the experience occurs. The “thinking” part of our brain communicates to the “emotional” part of our brain about whether we perceive to be in a safe or dangerous environment. We’re then able to determine the way we experience the fight or flight response; we can experience the high arousal state in fear or in excitement. For example, when you’re in a haunted house on Halloween and you experience a ghost jumping out to scare you, you may experience that high arousal state briefly. However, once you are able to recognize that the environment is not actually dangerous, you’re able to relabel the entire experience as safe.
How does the brain do this?
The experience of fear begins in the brain, particularly in the region called the amygdala, which helps us coordinate the way we respond to our environments. From here, our body responds to the emotional trigger that helps us fight off danger efficiently. We become hyperalert — our breath accelerates, pupils dilate, heart rate, blood pressure, and blood flow increase, and the gastrointestinal system (which is not as important in survival) slows down. As mentioned above, the thinking part of our brain, the hippocampus, is connected with the amygdala. The hippocampus works with the prefrontal cortex in interpreting the safety of our environment, or the perceived threat. They have higher-level processing ability to evaluate the context of the experience. Ultimately, the thinking part of our brain checks in on our emotional part to make sure things are A-OK.
Fear grants us control and confidence
Control is also an influential factor when it comes to the way we experience fear. The moment we relabel the experience as safe, we find ourselves in a place of control. After overcoming that high arousal state, we feel satisfied by knowing we’re safe, and an increased sense of confidence knowing that we can overcome things that once scared us. So, you can imagine how helpful fear might be on a first date to a scary movie — this outcome of increased confidence might land you a second date!
Your brain is unique
However, it’s important to note that we don’t all find the same things scary or enjoyable — everyone has a unique brain anatomy. So, for those who are more easily scared, your thinking brain likely perceives the threat as “too real” in which the fear response overrules any sense of control. For others, if the experience does not trigger your emotional brain enough, your thinking brain likely perceives the threat as “too unreal” which may result in you feeling bored by the experience. So, if your emotional brain is too scared and thinking brain is helpless, or your emotional brain is bored and thinking brain is suppressed, the fear in horror movies or on Halloween probably isn’t so fun for you.
Interested in talking out your fears? Book yourself a free 20-minute consult call here with one of our psychotherapists. Want to learn more about your unique brain? Check out our neurofeedback services to learn more!