Last updated on 12 April 2021
Cobwebs, flickering floating candles, and eerie Victorian era portraits – Halloween almost always spells spooky encounters and uncontrollable screams of surprise. You might dig the adrenaline of haunted houses and horror movies, but here’s the real cherry on top of the cake: Giving yourself a good scare is lined with a number of health benefits!
What is adrenaline?
When you are in a stressful situation and you find your heart throbbing, your palms sweating, and you begin to look for an escape, that is your body initiating a fight-or-flight response, triggered by the hormone adrenaline. Within a few minutes during a stressful situation, adrenaline is released into the blood, sending signals to organs to create a specific response.
Responses triggered by adrenaline include:
- Dilatation of air passages to provide muscles with oxygen to fight danger or flee
- Contraction of blood vessels to redirect blood toward major muscle groups, such as the heart and lungs
- A decrease in the body’s ability to feel pain
- A noticeable increase in strength and performance, as well as heightened awareness
1. Adrenaline can have relaxing effects on the body
While we know that too much stress is detrimental, a good amount of stress on the body can actually be healthy.
You might have noticed that a little ‘boo!’ makes your heart beat faster. When you’re scared out of nowhere, your brain perceives it as a stress signal and proceeds to send your body into fight-or-flight mode, which activates the adrenal glands to release adrenaline.
But because we understand that these Halloween scares are safe, the stress does not last long. That surge of adrenaline followed by relief actually tells the muscles in the body to relax. It sends a flood of oxygen-rich blood cells through your body and signals your brain to start releasing endorphins – a neurotransmitter that makes you feel good.
2. It can boost your immune system
It’s long been established that chronic stress is bad for overall immunity. However, quick bursts of stress may actually work to strengthen the immune system. Much like regular exercise (which is a moderate, short-lived stress for the body), allowing adrenaline to penetrate your system in short bouts with periods of recovery can strengthen your overall immune health. This means less sickness in the future and more time for adventure!
A little bit of stress (fear, in this case) tells your body that it needs to turn up the volume of some of its antioxidant mechanisms and be more efficient in its defence against free-radicals. This short-term stress may result in improved immunity when released in small quantities.
3. You may experience heightened mental alertness
In that moment you’re consumed by fear, norepinephrine is released from the adrenal glands (along with adrenaline and cortisol).
The hormone increases alertness and awareness, making you sharper during the period of stress. It’s all part of the plan to prepare your body to react to the fear or flee completely.
Norepinephrine has the ability to affect your mood and ability to concentrate. Low levels of the hormone are associated with conditions like attention deficit hyperactivity disorder, depression, and very low blood pressure.
If you happen to fall into one of those categories, a short-lived scare might alleviate the condition a little!
4. It can help improve psychological stability
It is unlikely you’re going to attempt haunted houses or horror movies alone (unless you want to savour all that thrill on your own). A low dose of shock therapy is a good way to connect with friends and family.
When we’re scared, we release the bonding hormone oxytocin, which makes us feel closer to those we’re with.
Also known as the love hormone, oxytocin is associated with empathy, trust, sexual activity, and relationship-building. It may also have benefits as a treatment for a number of conditions, including depression, anxiety and intestinal problems. In fact, one review of research into oxytocin reveals that the hormone contributes to relaxation and psychological stability.
So if you’re planning to try a haunted house, grab a bunch of friends to go along!
BUT – fear can be dangerous, especially if it’s continual or excessive.
How does fear and anxiety affect our health and body?
When you experience fear or anxiety, your body launches the fight-or-flight response. This triggers certain changes such as the increase of breathing and heart rate, non-essential blood vessels constricting while central blood vessels dilate, and muscles tightening.
All these are essential to keep us alive when we are in a dangerous situation. However, extended periods of such responses stress the body and lead to some serious health consequences.
Health impact of chronic fear
Living with prolonged fear affects various aspects of health:
- Physical health. Fear can have negative effects on the immune system and lead to cardiovascular damage, digestive problems, and decreased fertility. It can also speed up ageing and cause premature death.
- Memory. Fear can impair the formation of long-term memories and cause damage to certain parts of the brain, such as the hippocampus. This can further worsen the problem and can leave a person anxious most of the time.
- Brain processing and reactivity. Fear can interrupt brain processes related to emotional regulation, reading non-verbal cues, reflecting before acting, and acting ethically. This can make a person prone to intense emotions and impulsive reactions.
- Mental health. Long-term fear also causes fatigue, clinical depression and post-traumatic stress disorder.
Weakens your immune system
Usually, once a perceived threat has passed, your levels of stress hormones – adrenaline and cortisol – return to normal. Your heart rate and blood pressure return to normal levels, and other systems resume their regular activities.
However, when you’re in fear or distress multiple times per day or even several times per week, it can have serious negative effects on the body and mind. In this continually stressful environment, our bodies are often in an active state of fight or flight. This has a negative effect on the body, because its focus is shifted away from our immune and digestive systems, producing a weakened immune system and digestive problems, not to mention overworking the heart.
When this happens repeatedly and there is too much adrenaline for no practical reason, it can cause a weakened immune system, peptic ulcers, cardiovascular disorders and even DNA damage.
Stress-induced DNA damage can lead to premature ageing, the promotion of tumour growth, miscarriages in women and psychiatric conditions such as depression and exacerbated anxiety – this is why pregnant women and the elderly are discouraged from attempting roller coaster rides or haunted houses.
Prolonged cortisol production resulting from chronic stress is also thought to play a role in a wide range of diseases, including diabetes, osteoporosis and heart disease.
Increased heart rate and blood pressure
As mentioned above, when you encounter a stressful situation, stress hormones flood your bloodstream in what is known as the fight-or-flight response. Effects include increased heart rate, blood pressure, and muscle tension – these prevent your heart muscles from relaxing and supply adequate blood to your body such that you can respond quickly and with strength.
If we are in real threat or danger, these stress hormones help to rev up our bodies to prepare us to fight the attacker or flee to safety. However, when we activate this response during times of no real danger (such as a Halloween scare), we find ourselves in situations where we can’t fight and we can’t flee.
This may wreak havoc with your health if your fight-or-flight response becomes overwhelming and too much adrenaline and cortisol are dumped into the bloodstream. There is a chance your heart might not be able to handle the exertion.
When there’s an excessive surge of adrenaline and cortisol reaching the heart, it could lead to irregular heartbeats and the tightening of arteries. In an extreme case, it could result in sudden cardiac arrest and death.
It can happen in perfectly normal people, although those with pre-existing heart diseases are at more risk.
So always play safe
When we lift weights, there’s a certain amount of physiological stress that we put on our body in that moment. Then we take a break, and allow our tissues to recuperate. Our bodies actually become stronger through that process.
It’s the same with scaring yourself. Although it’s all for fun, allow yourself to recuperate. Give your body time to calm down and return to regularity before diving into the next scare.
If you’ve got a history of heart problems or a predisposition towards anxiety, pick a calmer form of fun!
Article reviewed by Dr Samuel Low, clinical director at Parkway Hospitals
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