Spiders. Clowns. Darkness. Freddy Krueger. Whatever your fill-in-the-blank phobia or stressor might be, we all have a trigger that causes us to experience the emotion of fear.
And fear is just that: an emotion. It’s a powerful one, prompted by a perceived threat, and it triggers a primitive mental and physical response.
Halloween, of course, is the time of year when we celebrate our fears. But have you ever wondered what’s going on inside your body when you hear that unexplained bump in the night?
“Most changes are what you’d probably expect. Your heart rate goes up, your blood pressure goes up,” said Oklahoma Medical Research Foundation President Stephen Prescott, M.D. “Ultimately you get a little bit jittery, because your body has recognized danger and induces a blast of hormones. The most important one in the quick-response phase is adrenaline.”
Prescott, a physician and medical researcher, said this instantaneous reaction, often referred to as the fight-or-flight response, is aptly named. “It’s how our ancestors learned to avoid dangerous and deadly situations.” Other potential effects include hyperventilation, sweating, goosebumps, sleep disturbance and a long list of other issues.
In some cases, fear can be physically debilitating to the point where people become incapable of leaving their homes or can’t get out of bed. “Thankfully, these cases, which stem largely from psychological issues, tend to be treatable with a high level of effectiveness,” Prescott said.
Fear lessens in its physical impact as the body adapts to the initial rush through a process called tachyphylaxis, a decrease in response over time.
It’s similar to the physical reaction to caffeine, which affects a lot of the same receptors in the body, said Prescott.
“Caffeine jazzes you up and raises your blood pressure, particularly if you’ve never had it before. Once you’re a regular coffee drinker, your body adapts and doesn’t respond to the same dose. The same general concept can apply to fear.”
A far less understood response occurs in people frequently exposed to dangerous or life-threatening situations, such as military combat. “They undergo a hormonal shift where they no longer perceive these situations as dramatically, and their bodies regulate to a certain degree,” said Prescott.
But what about the age-old question: Can a person be scared to death?
Certainly, it’s possible, said Prescott. But those most at risk probably have an underlying or undiagnosed health issue.
“If you already have heart disease or any coronary issues, a sudden or dramatic fearful experience could create enough stress on the heart to provoke a heart attack. So, yes, it can happen.”
But fear is unavoidable and important for our survival in some cases. It keeps us away from danger.
Some people even learn to crave the sensation. The popularity of scary movies, high-speed roller coasters and extreme sports proves it.
For Halloween lovers, Prescott has good news: “There’s no harm in a little fear for fun,” he said. “Grab some popcorn and watch a scary movie. When the creepy parts come, your body will do the rest. It’s programmed that way.”