Raise your hand if you’ve ever been to a haunted house, lined up to see the latest big screen shriek-fest, or admitted to an inexplicable fear of clowns. We usually avoid situations where we’re likely to be afraid. We may dread them, but some experts are saying that feelings of fear and anxiety could actually be good for you.
So could the spooky activities on your Halloween list actually be reaping you health benefits? The answer is mostly yes and a little bit of no.
When Being Afraid Is Definitely Not Good for You
“As a cardiologist, when I think about fear or certain stressors, I usually go to the bad place,” says Nicole Weinberg, M.D., FACC, cardiologist at the Providence Saint John's Health Center in Santa Monica, CA. “But if the stressor is someone standing behind you and saying ‘Boo!’ I can’t imagine that’s bad for you. Just as long as you don’t already have a heart condition or have a risk of plaque rupture.”
The Mental Health Benefits of Fear
Nekeshia Hammond, Psy.D., founder of Hammond Psychology & Associates, P.A., sees potential for mental health benefits. “For one thing, if you go to a haunted house or you’re trick-or-treating in the dark, you’re with your friends, and that has great social benefit,” she says.
“And then there’s the rush.”
You’ve probably noticed that a little “boo” makes your heart beat faster. And perhaps you’ve seen that the people coming out of the haunted house are laughing as well as shrieking. We have these giddy responses for two reasons.
Physically, our bodies and brains are being bombarded with chemicals. Adrenaline and dopamine speed up heart rate and blood pressure, flooding your muscles with oxygen to prepare you for fight or flight. But because we understand that these Halloween scares are safe, we get to enjoy that feeling of being pumped up rather than actually fighting or running away.
It turns out that the context in which you get scared matters. You can’t really control your body’s reaction, but you can control how you think about what your body feels.
Focus & the Benefits for Depression
Fear, or at least worry, can also help your focus. A recent study monitored the experiences of about 90 college students who self-reported a variety of depression and anxiety symptoms. The study assigned the subjects tasks designed to increase their feelings of worry. MRI scans taken during the tasks showed less depressed brain activity, suggesting that depression was somewhat relieved, being taken over by “anxious apprehension,” or worry. This could suggest that worry helps you focus less on depressing thoughts.
So, what’s the best health approach for Halloween? If it feels good, grab a bunch of friends, head to your local haunted house, and enjoy the scare. If it keeps you from trick-or-treating and gobbling up a lot of candy, that’s even better. But if you’ve got a history of heart problems or a predisposition towards anxiety, maybe pick a calmer form of fun.