Here’s a question to ponder next week, as we put on the spooky costumes and go treat-or-treating down streets decorated with spider webs and other eerie motifs: If Halloween is so scary, why do we like it so much?
Our understanding of fear and anxiety comes from a number of sources. Studies on animals help scientists to understand fear based on the behaviors of animals. For example, rats naturally avoid brightly lit, open spaces. That seems to be based on the influence of a part of the brain called the amygdala, which is the part of the brain that sends “fear” signals to the rest of the brain and then the body. These signals cause the body to become alert and prepared, the so-called “fight or flight” reflex. The heart beats faster, the muscles tighten up, blood moves from the intestines to the muscles, and the brain becomes very alert.
Studies on humans who have damage to the amygdala have shown that in the absence of amygdala input, people describe feeling less fearful. They are less inhibited and more likely to put themselves in potentially dangerous situations. This seems to be because the “danger” and “warning” signals from the amygdala to the rest of the body just aren’t working.
Fear is also functional. Fear can be very protective as it alerts us to situations where there is risk or danger. Fear keeps us from falling off high objects, getting bitten by animals, or being hit by cars. Our brains are constantly scanning the environment for risk, because we need to know if the stick we’re about to step on is actually a snake that will bite us. And evolutionarily, humans who avoided dangerous situations were more likely to pass their genes on to the next generation, making fear and vigilance highly conserved traits.
However, recent studies have concluded that there are also higher-order cognitive contributions to fear and anxiety, which previously were poorly understood as they were not able to be seen in animal models. People worry about and fear many more complex things than animals. Humans have fear and anxiety regarding imagined or anticipated events and stressors. Animals don’t do this. When is the last time you saw a monkey with an existential crisis? These differences between humans and animals (and between humans) also helps to explain why some anxiety treatments are not effective for some people, since they seem to target the more “animal” sources of anxiety rather than higher-order functioning. This is an exciting contribution to our formulation of and understanding of anxiety and fear, which we hope will allow us to develop novel treatments for people suffering from anxiety disorders.
This understanding also helps to explain why there are some fears that seem “instinctual” for example, a fear of heights, or dangerous animals. These fears come from the more central part of the brain, including the amygdala. However, the higher-order cognitive aspects of fear can influence the development of fears. For example, a person who was hit by a car may become fearful of situations or locations that remind them of the accident. That cognitive contribution can then activate the amygdala-based physical fear response, resulting in avoidance behaviors and physiological response as described above.
For some people, either the amygdala-based fear response or the cognitively-based fears can become exaggerated. This can keep people from their normal routines, or keep them from being able to do the things they want to do in their lives. This is when people are at risk for anxiety disorders, agoraphobia, or post-traumatic stress disorder. When fear and anxiety cause concern or interfere with functioning, it could be time to seek treatment from mental health providers to assess the problem and provide appropriate treatments. On our own, individuals can engage in self-help. Meditation and mindfulness can be helpful to calm anxious responses and help to ground and calm the brain. Some people find yoga to be very grounding and soothing. In some cases, psychotherapy and medications may be considerations; more treatments are constantly being developed to assist with these problems.
Sometimes fear can be fun, like in a haunted house or a scary movie: You cognitively know that you’re in a safe situation, but you can tickle your amygdala response a bit and many people consider that to be a good time. Some people find that with increasing exposures to a feared stimulus, the anxiety response is decreased and becomes much less problematic. But if you’re someone whose cognition tends towards anxiety and you don’t enjoy those kinds of things — just skip them!
Short bursts of fear and sympathetic nervous system (SNS) activation (like the kind you feel during a scary movie, or when walking through a haunted house), are not necessarily problematic, but long-term stress and anxiety, which activates the SNS, can cause health problems and can reduce brain and body health.
Enjoy this Halloween season, revel in the sensations and excitement of the season, knowing that the flutter in your stomach, the sweat on your palms, and your racing heart beat are all part of a coordinated and dynamic effort by your brain to direct your energy to keep you alive and well.
This piece is part of a special brain health initiative curated by Dr. Ali Rezai of The Ohio State Wexner Medical Center. For more, visit The Huffington Post’s Brain Health page.