How Your Brain Reacts to Fright

Why do some of us like getting a good scare now and then?

When something startles you, your body’s response is pretty interesting. And like so many things, it all starts with our amazing brains.

Here’s why we jump and how getting scared works:

  • When we experience something scary, your brain sends out an immediate alert to your amygdala, the brain’s control center for emotions and reactions.
  • When the amygdala receives the alert, it activates your fight or flight response, sending a rush of adrenaline coursing through your bloodstream. This adrenaline sets you into a hyper alertness; your pupils dilate and your eye muscles tense to open your eyes wide, expanding your field of vision.
  • The adrenaline also causes your heart to immediately pump faster, increasing your blood pressure and breathing rate.
  • Your arms and legs raise with goose bumps, the mammalian response (seen frequently in cats) to make us appear larger to predators.

A few seconds later, another region of your brain kicks in, your prefrontal cortex — the region that rules your thinking. Only then does the assessment part of your scare begin.

Your brain begins to decide whether or not there’s a rational reason to be scared. If your fear is well founded, your prefrontal cortex finds ways to keep you safe. If not, it begins to shut down all that adrenaline, and your body begins to go back to normal.

Does anything good come out of all this?

Assuming we were watching a scary movie and not running from a bear, it might not seem as if anything good could come from being frightened. But — your body’s response to fear can give you some small health boosts.

Being scared can heighten concentration. You are more likely remember details about the situation (again, your amazing brain to the rescue helping you recognize patterns in case the scare reoccurs). That heightened concentration will also help you to remember your lines in a play, or nail a job interview.

If you are sharing your scare — such as watching a scary movie with friends or family, as you calm down, the act of sharing that extreme emotion will encourage the secretion of the hormone oxytocin, encouraging bonding.

How to calm yourself down when you are overly panicked:

Most of us cannot control the first part of panic, when your amygdala takes over. But we can train ourselves to react to fear less violently by learning to control our secondary stress reactions.

  • First, breathe deeply and steadily. That will help slow down the production of stress hormones, steadying your heart rate and helping your muscles relax.
  • Second, remind yourself that your body is responding in the way it is designed to, working to self protect. Embracing and understanding the process will help you calm down faster.
  • You can add to that calm by focusing on your vegus nerve — gently massaging from the top of your ear to the lob. This has been proven help reverse your body’s fight of flight response and calm you down.

Now that you know what’s going on in your body, feel free to enjoy a little scare now and then!

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