Watching Scary Movies Can Help Reduce Your Stress (Really!)

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If you’re a fan of scary movies, you might notice that intense scenes may make you a little fidgety. As a scare pops up suddenly, you may unconsciously clench your fists or grip the arms of the couch, your heart rate quickens, goosebumps start to prickle your skin and sweat beads out of your pores. All of these reactions are associated with a fight-or-flight response.

Fight-or-flight response is how our body’s nervous system involuntarily reacts to a perceived stressful or frightening event. When we’re scared, our breathing, blood pressure, heart rate, digestion and sweating may change to protect us from danger. This natural reaction is extremely helpful, but too much activation of our fight-or-flight response may lead to physical and psychological issues such as anxiety disorders.

Although it seems counterintuitive, a few studies have suggested we might benefit from watching horror movies because it actually relieves stress and anxiety. Watching horror films can create a controlled environment where you can activate your fight-or-flight response without real-world consequences (which is better than panicking over a school or work assignment the day before it’s due). This concept of relieving day-to-day stress and anxiety in a controlled environment is called a “contained trigger.”

A recent study revealed that people who frequently watch horror movies were more resilient and psychologically prepared during the COVID-19 pandemic. Researchers looked at brain imaging data to identify whether regional brain responses aligned in different people watching the same specific movie moments. They found similarities in brain activity only when the audience was captivated by a suspenseful movie, such as one by famous film director Alfred Hitchcock. The researchers saw that sustained fear from watching horror films creates and strengthens neural networks, which in turn amplifies sensory responses and increases activity in some parts of the brain. In addition, as fear increases, brain connectivity strengthens in areas where visual and emotional processing happens. In other words, as your brain gets used to anticipating fear, you will eventually be more ready to expect a surprise attack on-screen and will resolve any ambiguity or anxiety surrounding the expected danger.

Burning calories may be another benefit of watching horror movies—which is a nice perk when you think about all the treats people tend to eat on Halloween night!

Need a stress-relieving activity this Halloween? Grab a comfy seat, some snacks and check out top calorie-burning scary movies to activate your fight-or-flight response. Happy Halloween!

Kyla Leones is an undergraduate student at the University of Illinois at Springfield. She is majoring in medical laboratory science with a pre-med concentration and is minoring in chemistry.

Natalya Zinkevich, PhD, is an assistant professor at the University of Illinois at Springfield. She teaches courses related to human anatomy and physiology, health and disease, and vertebrate zoology. Her research primarily focuses on the cardiovascular system.

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