The Science of Fear


October seems like the one time of year people seem to embrace their fears. Stores sell spooky Halloween costumes, haunted houses and corn mazes pop up around town, and channels on TV start featuring scary movies on repeat.

While many people would pass on the idea of visiting a haunted house, why is it that others seek out fear and seem to actually enjoy it?

How Your Body Responds to Fear

Your brain is able to understand that you aren’t in any real danger when you see something scary on TV or walk through a haunted house. These frights are created to purposely make you scared.

At the same time, your brain is pretty good at determining when you ARE in real danger – if you stumble upon a bear in the woods or if another car swerves into your lane on the freeway. Your real fear response will allow you to make a split-second decision and help your body respond in a way that is appropriate to keep you safe.

“When you are startled, your body responds by releasing adrenaline, also known as the body’ stress hormone epinephrine. Adrenaline is what allows your body to make those in-the-moment decisions to protect yourself,” says Farvah Fatima, M.D., a family medicine doctor for Henry Ford Health. “This is called the flight-or-fight response. When you sense a threat, it is your body's natural reaction to physically or mentally fight off the threat or run away from it to protect yourself.”

There are many factors that affect how you might respond to fear, including:

  • Your past experiences with fear. Your brain remembers what it feels like to be scared. The anticipation of being scared again can make you more sensitive, anxious or nervous when in a frightful situation.
  • Your personality. People with different personality types respond to adrenaline differently. Thrill seekers put themselves in situations to feel that rush of adrenaline – maybe by frequently riding roller coasters or getting excited over seeing the newest scary movie. People who are more stress-sensitive will avoid frightening situations to minimize anxiety and the thought of being scared.
  • Your friends. The people around you can also affect how scary things make you feel. Watching a scary movie with a group of friends will be a different experience than if you watch it alone because our emotions are contagious. If your friends tend to react more to scary situations, odds are, you may feel more scared during that movie.
  • The type of fear. There is a big difference in the type of fear you feel at a haunted house versus the fear you experience if you are really in a harmful situation. Haunted houses and scary movies fall into a category called manufactured fear – fear that is created for enjoyment.

What You Feel When You’re Afraid

“Many people enjoy haunted houses or scary movies because they like the thrill they get when they are in these sorts of stressful situations,” says Dr. Fatima. “If they were actually in the situations that are being simulated, their bodies would respond very differently.”

Your body can go through many changes in stressful situations that act as coping mechanisms for the fear you feel. These may include:

  • Goosebumps. A physiological response inherited from our animal ancestors. These little bumps may pop up on your arms and legs in the same way a cat’s hair will stand straight up when threatened or scared.
  • Dry mouth. A sudden rush on anxiety can reduce the amount of saliva your body produces. You may have a hard time speaking or swallowing when you’re frightened.
  • Cold sweats. Your body sweats cold until you react to the threat. Once you are out of danger, your body temperature returns to normal.
  • Crying. According to the American Psychology Association, crying when you’re scared is your body’s way of trying to balance your emotions.
  • Hives. When you are really stressed, your immune system gets thrown out of whack. Your body can develop an allergic reaction to the stress that can cause hives.
  • Fatigue. Adrenaline increases your heart rate as your body reacts to fear. Once the threat is gone, the energy boost of adrenaline may leave you feeling pretty tired.

Fear and Phobias

But what happens when your response to fear becomes too extreme? While it is completely normal to be afraid of the dark, for example, if you are losing sleep or have anxiety around bedtime, talk with your doctor. Your fears should not interfere with your health or ability to go about your life. If they do, you might have a phobia.

Phobias are often associated with avoiding social situations, interactions or even specific objects because of your fear. They can lead to other anxiety disorders and serious health conditions such as eating disorders and depression if not carefully managed. Your doctor can help you learn to calm yourself down and confront your worst fears.

Embracing this spooky season isn’t for everyone but understanding how your body processes fear can help you handle anxiety and other stressors in your life.

To find a doctor at Henry Ford, visit or call 1-800-HENRYFORD (436-7936).

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Dr. Farvah Fatima is a family medicine doctor who sees patients at Henry Ford Medical Center – Southfield.

Categories: FeelWell