Maybe fear isn’t something to be feared. Experiencing a fright has its unpleasant aspects, of course, including ramped-up anxiety and a racing heart. But recent research points to benefits, too—benefits that go beyond fear’s well-known ability to alert us to dangers. After feeling fear, people tend to enjoy a short-term mood boost and a potential long-term confidence boost.
Here’s a closer look at these potential benefits of fear—and how to best take advantage of them.
The Benefits of Being Frightened
A study published this October in Emotion examined the brain waves of people before and after they passed through an extreme haunted house—that is, a haunted house designed to be truly frightening even to adults, not just a lark for kids. The study’s conclusion: After enduring frights, people tend to experience a significant decline in brain wave activity—a decline that suggests they are ruminating less over their problems and are less caught up in day-to-day frustrations. People report feeling less stressed and less tired after experiencing fear, too. In fact, the brain waves and moods of people who recently experienced fear are similar to those of people who are meditating. Why would that be? Fear snaps us into the present, causing background concerns to fade away. And the endorphins that the body produces when we experience fear feel calming and pleasant after the stress of the fright passes.
These mood-boosting benefits are temporary—they generally last around four to six hours, though this varies from person to person and are based on the intensity of the fright. But fear has a potential long-term benefit as well. Surviving a fright can boost people’s confidence in their ability to overcome future frights and challenges. At some level, people seem to think, I got through that frightening thing, so maybe I can face this frightening thing, too—even if the two frightening things have little or nothing to do with each other.
Selecting the Right Frights
Not every fearful experience provides mood and confidence benefits—some produce debilitating trauma instead. The secret is to seek out experiences that sound scary but not horrible to you—part of you should want to try the experience even though part of you is frightened by the idea. Do not force yourself to confront your deepest fears or let your friends badger you into trying something that you deeply and fully dread doing, because those sorts of things can be traumatic.
Example: Skydiving, bungee jumping, or even a stroll along the pedestrian path on a high bridge could be appropriately fear-inducing for most people…but these are poor choices for people who are so afraid of heights that they feel anxious even driving across bridges.
There is no need to put yourself at any real risk, either. A frightening activity or situation can trigger fear even when there is sufficient safety equipment to virtually eliminate the danger—and potentially even if the situation is not real.
Examples: A horror movie or haunted house could trigger real fear even though its frights are fake. Looking over the side of a cliff, bridge or observation deck can be frightening even if safety barriers are in place to prevent a fall. Snorkeling or diving among sharks is frightening even if it’s a species of shark that’s not dangerous to humans or you’re protected inside a cage.
Counterintuitively, you can reap the benefits of fear even from activities that you do not consider frightening—you could do things that you consider thrilling instead. Our sympathetic nervous system experiences fears and thrills in very similar ways.
Example: If driving fast thrills you, take your car to a track day where you can legally drive it faster than on the roads…or go on a fast ride at an amusement park.
Transforming Today’s Frights into Tomorrow’s Confidence
If you take a few additional steps after experiencing fear, you can engrain the event into your memory, maximizing the long-term confidence boost it provides. (The short-term mood boost mentioned above is likely to follow fear whether you do these things or not.) In the hours or days following the fright, find time to…
Write about the experience in a journal. Write what occurred, what you did and how you felt. If you faced the fear together with a friend or group of friends, also go out together for drinks or a meal immediately afterward and discuss the experience. Sharing stories is a great way to lock things into memory.
Draw pictures of the fearful event (or take photos of the location where it occurred and anything else that calls it to mind). Save these images with your written text.
When you know you are going to face a challenge in the future, read the words you wrote about facing the earlier fear and look at the pictures. Let your memories take you back to the moment and relive it in your mind. The more you do this, the more you establish this experience, and the courage you may have displayed, as a source of confidence.
If an attempt to do something frightening is less than 100% successful—for example, if you try to read a scary book in a dark room with a flashlight, but you flip on the overhead light after a few pages…or you take a walk along a scenic overpass but cannot bring yourself to peek down over the edge—frame your effort in a positive way by crediting yourself for being brave enough to try.
Examples: You go to a pet store and look closely at tarantulas or snakes in their terrariums—but when the clerk lets you hold one, you ask to have it taken away quickly…or cannot bring yourself to touch it at all. If spiders and snakes are frightening to you, as they are to many people, even getting up close to the terrarium took some guts. If you go to a movie that you know you will find extremely frightening and you have to leave halfway through, it still took courage to buy the ticket and watch as much as you did. The fact that other people made it through the movie doesn’t necessarily mean that they are braver than you—scary movies might not affect them as deeply.
If you catch yourself feeling bad about coming up short, tell yourself, I got pretty far, and that took bravery. Next time I’ll do even better.
Note: If your plan is to do something frightening with friends, choose your most supportive, positive-minded friends for the outing, not the critics and sarcastic sorts. If you fall short of total success, your supportive friends are likely to congratulate you for doing as well as you did, not shame you for not doing better.
Helpful: To improve your odds of successfully standing up to fears, select fears that take place amid nature. When we’re out in nature, we tend to start to feel like we’re a small part of the natural world ourselves—and in that natural world, facing fears seems normal and unavoidable. This mind-set can help us successfully and confidently face frightening situations.