For many people, the days and weeks leading up to Halloween are filled with fun. It’s a kind of fun they rarely experience at other times, because much of it is built around fear. They watch spooky movies, visit haunted houses, and surround their front doors with creepy decorations. They like the feeling of being scared, and laugh as their heartbeats return to normal.
Most of the time, fear isn’t fun. In fact, it’s usually the opposite. Whether it’s a staged event at a haunted house or a truly terrifying situation in real life, fear taps into the part of our brains that’s there to ensure our survival. In microseconds, the brain decides whether the best response is to fight back, flee from the situation, or freeze in mortal terror.
Next, the brain is flooded with chemicals that create the correct response, like adrenaline and cortisol. Our body reacts immediately, rerouting blood into our muscles, sharpening our senses, and speeding up our breathing. For the moment, we don’t notice physical pain, and our immune system gets ready to address any physical damage. In this state, we’re hypersensitive, and even an innocent action or remark can be interpreted as a threat.
In normal situations, once the perceived danger has passed, our brains instruct our bodies to relax. Our breathing slows and our muscles loosen. We often feel a little uncomfortable, as it may take a while for the aftereffects of all those extra brain chemicals to wear off. But in time, everything goes back to normal.
That is, unless the conditions that trigger fear continue to happen again and again. If someone is constantly abused or repeatedly put into life-threatening situations (such as law enforcement officers or people in the military), the impact of those fight-or-flight moments grows until it actually begins to alter the brain’s normal chemistry. When you hear that someone is suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), that’s exactly what’s happening. The brain has been fighting threats so often that it begins to have trouble telling the difference between normal situations and real dangers.
How do we overcome the fears surrounding Halloween? We laugh at them. Watch a group of teenagers stumbling out of a haunted house, and you’ll see them laughing hysterically as they cling to one another. They’ll tell stories of what scared them for days afterward. That playful engagement they share helps their brains process the fear, so they don’t stay afraid. The brain chemicals that put the body on alert are replaced by chemicals like dopamine that create a sense of pleasure and relaxation.
When counselors work with children and adults whose enjoyment of life has been impaired by fear, playful engagement is one of the most effective ways to bring the brain back into balance. We help them process the fears and provide strategies for overcoming them. When the fears are deep-seated, such as in adults who experienced childhood abuse or are suffering from PTSD, we help them differentiate their daily lives from what they’ve been through.
It’s okay to be afraid sometimes. That’s a normal part of life at Halloween and all year ‘round. But if your fears exert more power over your daily life than you’d like, maybe it’s time to sit down with a counselor and learn how to take control. Call us today at 317-790-9396. Or contact us via e-mail.