Fright or Flight?

Tomorrow is Halloween, the perfect occasion to be scared out of your gourd!

Pun intended.

We all know that fright is a sudden, intense fear. But have you ever thought about what causes fright? This primitive survival mechanism is meant to warn us of danger and was essential in keeping early humans alive. It’s a complex bodily process that generates both a biochemical and emotional response.

When your child is out trick-or-treating and is frightened by a creepy costume or a house with scary decorations, here is what happens:

The brain sends alerts to the amygdala (the region responsible for processing emotions and instincts) and prefrontal cortex (the area where planning and decision-making occur).

The amygdala activates the body’s “fight-or-flight” response by sending a burst of adrenaline through the bloodstream. This causes your pupils to dilate, your muscles to tense, and your field of vision to expand, allowing you to spot danger more easily. Your heart rate increases, blood pressure rises, and breathing rate soars. You may experience goosebumps on your arms and legs, a response that benefits animals by making them appear larger to predators but serves no purpose in people.

The prefrontal cortex analyzes the threat and decides whether there is a rational reason to be afraid. If so, it finds a way to keep you safe; if not, the fight-or-flight response is deactivated.

When the brain decides you’re no longer in danger, it sends a message signaling that you’re safe. Your body stops producing excess stress hormones and heart rate, blood pressure, and breathing return to normal.

Some people get a rush out of being scared; these are the folks who flock to scary movies like “The Shining” and “The Blair Witch Project” and make fun of others who jump out of their seats or cover their eyes when watching horror flicks. Part of this has to do with dopamine, one of the chemicals the nervous system releases into the bloodstream; this neurotransmitter is responsible for activating pleasure centers in the brain, which is why some people derive enjoyment from fear. Genetics also play a role; if mom and dad were scary movie junkies, you might be wired that way, too.

If you don’t like being frightened, there are steps you can take to calm yourself down. Try the following:

Take deep breaths. This helps slow down your heart rate and relax your muscles, encouraging your body to halt the production of stress hormones.

Rub your ear. Believe it or not, gently massaging the ears triggers the release of endorphins, which help reduce stress and anxiety and promote feelings of relaxation.

If all else fails, remember that fright is a natural response designed to protect you from danger. Without it, you might end up in the jaws of a lion!

Happy Halloween!