Every Halloween we revel in the spooky and the scary. Spiders, skeletons, scary movies, ghosts, ghouls, and goblins — at this time of year, they’re all just part of the fun. We giggle at things we might otherwise recoil from in fright, and all of the scares are followed with ample candy. There are many reasons why we do this—first and foremost, because it’s fun—but from a mental health perspective, safely enjoying the occasional scare might be doing us some good.
Today, Velizar Nikiforov explains why we all need a good scare once in a while.
Let’s start with the nature of fear. While it may not be something we usually enjoy, it is in fact a perfectly natural and useful reaction. The physical manifestations of fear — thumping heart, ragged breathing, sweaty palms — are part of the fight-or-flight response, our body’s built-in system for getting us out of harm’s way. Fear is the emotional component of this reaction, and it tends to be accompanied by other changes to our perceptual and cognitive processes—our senses are sharpened and trained on any sign of danger, and our thoughts run towards worst case scenarios. Imagine you’re walking through a dark and ominous forest: your fear might make you attentive to every creak of the trees and snap of a branch, and with each step you might expect a blood-thirsty animal to leap out at you. With your fight-or-flight response, you’ll be primed to detect them and protect yourself.
When there’s real danger afoot, our fear serves us very well, letting us detect threats early and respond effectively. However, sometimes our fear reactions can become misdirected. Whether due to a past personal experience or through the example of others, we might fear things that are not particularly dangerous to us. For example, a child whose mother is afraid of spiders may see her shriek and run every time she catches sight of one. That child might begin to fear and avoid spiders, too. Over the years, this fear reaction might transfer to any place where a spider might lurk, so the child may start avoiding basements and attics, or sheds and gazebos. Even a photograph of a spider might prompt a spike of dread. In some cases, such fears can become debilitating and interfere with life to such an extent that they can be diagnosed as a phobia.
In such cases, the protective purpose of fear has been turned towards an object that poses minimal threat or is only dangerous in rare cases. However, because this fear leads to avoiding any interaction with the feared object, the fearful individual never gets to have any experiences that can help demonstrate this fact. In cognitive behavioral treatment of phobia, such misdirected fear is addressed by very gradually putting the client in contact with the object of their fear: someone with a spider phobia might look at a picture of spider until their fear naturally subsides and then repeat the experience by looking at a spider in a jar, touching a web, being in the same room as a harmless spider and so on, until their fear is reduced to a reasonable level.
Even in the absence of a phobia, such safe exposure to feared things can help demonstrate that the world is not always threatening and dangerous. Going to a haunted house or watching a scary movie allows us to learn that sometimes things that scare us are not real. Such experiences allow us to feel our fear and watch it dissipate without escaping or avoiding. This helps us adapt to the emotional and physical experience of being frightened, and teaches us how to manage it.
This Halloween, take the opportunity to enjoy fearlessly facing your fear. And don’t forget to reward yourself with some candy!
Velizar Nikiforov, MA, is a Staff Therapist on the Cognitive Behavioral Therapy Team at The Family Institute. He specializes in working with individuals with depression, obsessive-compulsive disorder and anxiety.