Is Being Scared Good For You?

Assuming everyone has survived Halloween, here’s a question — when we get scared, what impact does that have on our bodies?

The surprising answer is, depending on the type of person you are, the effects can be more good than bad.

Being in or even viewing a scary situation does cause physiological changes, like an elevated heart rate, dilated pupils, and tensed muscles. This is because your brain reacts to fear by unleashing chemicals like fight-or-flight hormones and the neurotransmitters endorphins and dopamine. These reactions dull pain, excite your mood and cause a natural high similar to falling in love. According to Dr. Margee Kerr, a sociologist who studies fear and the ways it affects us, “Even though you knew you were never really in danger, you still feel a sense of euphoria after making it through a frightening event.”

The fright reaction includes production of the bonding chemical oxytocin —the hormone mothers produce during childbirth. Thus, a frightening experience is actually a great way to solidify social relationships, and strong social connections have been linked to many health benefits, including a longer life.

Experiencing fear is also thought to help your ability to perform in high-stress environments. “You become more comfortable with the physical experience of fear, and so you’re better able to work through it during tense situations,” Dr. Kerr says.

It might even be possible to treat post traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) through exposure to minor frights. Dr. Kerr and her colleagues at the University of Pittsburgh hypothesize that if PTSD sufferers can stay in control during a harmless scare, like watching a horror movie, they may become more comfortable with deeper anxieties.

Of course, not all people respond to scary situations in healthy ways. “Everyone has a different tolerance level when it comes to fear,” Kerr says. “Some people just shut down or are traumatized by their fear.” Negative responses like nightmares, inability to sleep, or high anxiety levels can result. And children don’t respond the same way as adults. “Kids who are younger than six or seven can’t separate real from make-believe, and seeing something frightening can be really traumatizing.”

The bottom line is know yourself. “People know what they enjoy and what they don’t when it comes to fear,” Kerr says. “What you find fun or thrilling, someone else may think is too much.” So an occasional harmless scare can be a healthy way to experience some excitement, providing you can handle it.

For more detail, see “You Asked: Is Scaring Myself Healthy?” by Markham Heid (

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