Fear is your brain reacting to the expectation or anticipation of possible harm, which really doesn’t sound the least bit fun. So, why then do so many of us purposefully seek out experiences that produce that heart-pounding, can’t-catch-your-breath, sweaty palms feeling? Well, the answer is also in your brain.
Because your brain’s number one priority is your survival, it’s always on the lookout for and highly sensitive to anything that might be perceived as a threat in your environment with multiple pathways quickly carrying this information straight from your senses to your brain. A signal first hits your thalamus and then zooms to your amygdala, which goes into high alert causing certain neurotransmitters to be released.
The fear signals then zip to an ancient part of your brain called periaqueductal gray causing the instinctual freezing or jumping out of your skin behavior, and speeds on to the hypothalamus, which controls your autonomic nervous system producing the classic bodily fear responses: thumping heart, skyrocketing blood pressure, and rapid breathing. The autonomic nerves shoot the signal to your adrenal glands which pump out adrenaline. Glucose is released into your bloodstream also giving you a big boost in case you need to get the heck out of there or fight for your life, and cortisol floods your system keeping you ready for action.
The chemicals released during a fight-or-flight moment can work like glue to build strong memories, sometimes called flashbulb memories, which is why some very vivid, scary memories seem to be burned into your brain.
Fear Is A Form Of Arousal
Fear immediately activates your body’s arousal system, as described above, which triggers a cascade of feel-good neurotransmitters and hormones, like endorphins, dopamine, serotonin, and adrenaline that give you an incredible rush. You know – that “Hulk” feeling. Seconds later when you recognize that you’re safe and sound, your mind interprets the arousal as positive, not negative, and you are left with a surge that feels great. It’s a safe way to experience the exhilarating feelings of fear.
Not everyone enjoys being afraid, however, and I think it’s safe to say that no one wants to experience a truly life-threatening situation. But there are plenty of us who really enjoy a good scare. Research suggests that this may be because of key differences in how the brains of thrill-seekers and thrill-avoiders handle dopamine, the brain chemical of pleasure and reward. One study showed that some people get more of a kick from this dopamine response than others because some people’s brains lack brakes for dopamine release and re-uptake meaning that some people are going to enjoy thrills, scares, and risks while others (me included), not so much. Another study discovered that there may be genetic differences as well due to variations in a particular gene which affects a brain chemical linked to anxiety. People with two copies of this gene are more easily disturbed by frightening images.
Fear Gives You Confidence
People earn bragging rights by jumping out of airplanes, climbing mountains, and riding roller coasters with names like “The Intimidator.” And if that’s not enough for extreme adrenaline junkies, there are even companies now that let you plan and pay for your own kidnapping. (No, thank you!) Besides the neurochemical high accompanying such thrills, forging through a scary experience makes us feel resourceful, successful, and confident and gives our self-esteem a boost. There’s great satisfaction and a sense of accomplishment in being able to say that you conquered and mastered something that was threatening – even if it’s nothing more than the relief of having made it through the event and it being over.
Fear also takes the focus off your worries and is a release from your real-life anxieties. If all your focus is on the zombie lurking around the corner, you’re not stressing over that deadline at work or the credit card balance. Fear jerks you right into the present moment and everything else falls away.
Fear Is Funny
It’s all about triggering your fight-or-flight response and getting the chemical rush, but in a completely safe space. Haunted houses have gotten really good at this and have gone high-tech. Many deliver a startle scare by triggering one of your senses with different sounds, air blasts, and even smells which sets off your fear response, but your brain soon realizes that these are not real threats and immediately starts laughing and smiling.
Take a look at these pictures of people snapped at the scariest moment of a haunted house, The Nightmares Fear Factory in Canada, which claims to be the scariest haunted house attraction in the world. I know, in this case, their fear sure was funny to me!
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