Mind & Body

Suffer From Anxiety? There's a Horror Movie for That

No matter what you do or where you're from, there's a good chance that anxiety has impacted your life at one time or another. In fact, more than 40 million people in the United States alone suffer from anxiety on a regular basis. There are simply too many stressful triggers out there — from impending work deadlines to becoming a parent to that spider on the ceiling that you know is going to land on your head. And while you might think the best way to curb your anxiety is with calming remedies, for many people, the opposite is true. That's why one unlikely antidote to anxiety is horror movies. How can watching other people go through stressful, terrifying, but usually fictitious experiences help calm your nerves?

Related Video: Why Do Things Sound Scary?

The Scare Theory

Believe it or not, curing anxiety by watching horror movies or TV shows is not uncommon. People have been doing it for decades, often in secret because they assume others might find the practice weird. However, thanks to Reddit threads like this one, these stressed-out horror fans are starting to realize they might be onto something.

Essentially, the horror they're watching allows them to redirect their generalized anxiety onto something that's not only not real, but not affecting them directly. That, in turn, helps diffuse whatever they're dealing with.

"I become worried about whether someone's going to break in or I'm going to see a ghost, versus whatever silly thing I had been worried about earlier," explains one Redditor on the thread.

The Science Behind It

Dr. Mathias Clasen of Aarhus University in Denmark has been studying the psychological effects of horror movies for 15 years. He believes that when people can handle a horror movie, they leave feeling better than they did when they started because their brain reacts like it would if they were experiencing the real thing. There's a natural relief that accompanies making it through a high-stress situation.

"I'm not surprised to learn that some anxious individuals find horror films therapeutic," Clasen said in an interview with Broadly. "The genre allows us to voluntarily — and under controlled circumstances — get experience with negative emotion."

It is also possible that frequent exposure to scary things in movies and TV shows helps anxiety sufferers cope with real-life stressors because the practice is like exercise for the amygdala. The amygdala is the part of the brain that signals danger and can be hyperactive in people with generalized anxiety disorder. If people with hyperactive amygdalas self-medicate with a regular dose of horror, their fear and anxiety reaction may decrease over time. However, this has only been studied with very specific images, so it's hard to say if that would work with horror movies in general.

That said, the "fight or flight" feeling you get when you're scared is also closely tied to being happy and excited, so perhaps that's yet another reason it can quell anxiety. What's more, since you're confronting your fears in a safe environment, like a cozy living room, it's easier to separate your irrational fears from reality and remember that things could always be worse.

The Opposite Effect

Of course, not everyone with anxiety will experience relief after watching horror. In fact, many people have the exact opposite reaction due to the same fight-or-flight response in our brain. "One study reports that about a half-dozen people had to seek clinical help after seeing 'The Exorcist' because the lingering fear was so intense," Glenn Sparks, a Purdue professor at the Brian Lamb School of Communication, told the Purdue Exponent. This is also why horror can be so polarizing — the way you handle the triggering material depends on how your unique brain processes it.

Ultimately, more specific research needs to be done to determine just how effective watching horror can be as a homespun remedy for anxiety, but the many personal recommendations suggest it's certainly worth a try. Just remember, if you get too scared, you can always turn it off and try meditating instead.

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For more on what fear does to you, check out "The Science of Fear: How the Culture of Fear Manipulates Your Brain" by Daniel Gardner. We handpick reading recommendations we think you may like. If you choose to make a purchase, Curiosity will get a share of the sale.

Written by Allison Hirschlag November 26, 2018

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