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The Terrifying Science Behind Being Scared

Raise your hand if this happens to you, like, every year: Your friend drags you to a haunted house the day before Halloween and you're forced to navigate room after room of monsters, ghosts, and goons that jump out at you, lurk behind you, and let out blood-curdling screams. Your heart is beating in your ears, you've figured out that you can definitely jump high enough to try a box jump next time at boot camp, and you may or may not have peed your pants a little (don't worry, we won't tell).

But did you ever stop to wonder: 1) What is this kind of intense fright doing to my body? 2) How is my friend being so chill about this? and 3) Why the hell do we do this to ourselves? Well, we were wondering the same thing, so we chatted with stress expert Dr. Pete Sulack, founder of StressRX.com, to find out the science behind being scared AF.

Scared Haunted House Gif

What happens to your body in a haunted house goes back to our caveman days: Essentially, you're confronted with an external threat (ex: 6-foot-tall teenager in a zombie mask that looks scary real). This threat triggers your internal fight-or-flight response, particularly in the hypothalamic–pituitary–adrenal (HPA) axis in your brain, which is part of the hormonal stress response system.

Your pupils dilate to let more light in, your heart beats stronger and faster to get more blood to your muscles, your veins constrict (causing a spike in blood pressure), your blood thickens (in case it needs to clot if you get injured), your digestive and rest functions slow down, and your mind clears—but not to be logical. "It actually goes to a primitive spot, the survivalist part of the brain," says Sulack. "Cortisol and adrenaline and several other stress hormones are released to help your body cope with what your mind assumes is an all-out assault on you."

While this all sounds terrible and scary, it's actually fine. Plus, it comes with a little rush: "In an acute stress response like that, you have a jolt, a lightning bolt of adrenaline. It clears your mind and makes you more alert, and even triggers a cascade of dopamine in your brain," says Sulack. ICYMI, dopamine is the ~magical~ feel-good "reward chemical" your body releases during things like exercise, cuddling, listening to music, or eating sugar. So all this scary stuff actually makes you feel a whole lot of pleasure. (This is just one of the reasons being scared can be a good thing.)

Screamign Scared

The bad news: If you're suffering from chronic stress, whether from emotional stress (like a stressful relationship or job) or physical stress (like a chronic health condition)—or are feeling all-around run-down and under-the-weather, this type of acute stress zap can actually be bad for you. In fact, the more chronic stress and "the more adverse or stressful instances you have experienced in your life, the more hair-triggered that stress response will be," says Sulack. (And, actually, Americans are more stressed than ever.)

It's healthy to have a little bit of stress, says Sulack, and when it comes in quick doses (like at a haunted house or even during a couple hours of scary movie), it's fine because "our bodies were created to withstand stressful situations like that," he says. "Then when that threat is gone, our body comes back to homeostasis and rest." For someone whose body and or mind is chronically stressed, there's no default to homeostasis. For their body, it's like living in a scary movie all the time (okay, not quite that scary, but you get the gist). Long-term stress actually deteriorates the body. So if you've been having a particularly stressful time or have a long-lasting condition, Sulack says it might be better to stick to handing out the candy this Halloween instead of going into the haunted house.

not real hunger games

Okay, but what about the fact that none of it is actually real? This goes back to that whole primitive state of mind thing. When you get scared, you ditch the logic and default to the limbic system—the emotional center of your brain, says Sulack. Because you quick-switch into the irrational, emotional part of your mind, it's tougher to sort out the fact that it's not an actual axe murderer, but just a guy in a costume.

And then there's the friend who not only loves haunted houses, but isn't fazed in the least by the bogeymen jumping out in front of them. What gives? "They're more resilient," says Sulack. "It's been said that germs make us sick, but if germs made us sick we'd all be dead. The reality is that germs make a weak host sick, a body that's not resilient. Stress works the same way." So the more resilient you are, the less stress will take a toll on your mind and body. (Here are other scary ways stress could be messing with your health.)

On the bright side, you can do things to amp up your resilience and smile in the face of those goblins next year, and they're simple: "Exercise, eat well, get proper rest, and have good relationships," says Sulack. So, basically, just live a happy, healthy life. All right, challenge accepted—we'll see you next year, Fright Fest.

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