Oct. 8, 2021 — Getting scared is a completely normal reaction, especially when you watch horror movies or walk down an alley alone in the dark. There is a reason why you feel fear almost as if it’s physical.
Genetically, our DNA is wired in a way that some people love the things that scream “Boo!” at night while others detest it, or why some people crave horror films while others recoil just at the thought.
If you cringe at signs of even fictional horror, don’t worry: Your natural reflex has a reason behind it.
“Epinephrine, also known as adrenaline, is secreted in the blood when someone is watching a scary film,” says Shana Feibel, DO, a psychiatrist at the Lindner Center of HOPE near Cincinnati, OH. “It causes the sympathetic nervous system to take over and creates a feeling of fight or flight, which prepares the body to respond to a perceived threat.”
Feibel, also an assistant professor of psychiatry at the University of Cincinnati, says horror films can make you hyperventilate and cause your heartbeat to increase rapidly, which gives your legs more energy to run faster in an actual fight-or-flight situation.
The main reason why you might have a higher startle response than others lies with your level of oxytocin, a hormone and neurotransmitter secreted by the brain’s hypothalamus that calms you down. A higher level of oxytocin means that you will be less scared, while a lower level means you will be easily afraid.
Understanding the Science
But why do some people have lower levels than others?
“There is a great variation in individuals of how sensitive their oxytocin receptors are, which means a given level of oxytocin can have a big or small impact,” says Joe Cohen, founder and CEO of SelfDecode, a health report service in Miami.
The gene that contains the receptor for oxytocin is OXTR, and the less sensitive it is, the more likely you are to have anxiety, panic attacks, and fear.
“There is a part of that gene which causes some people to be less anxious, less afraid, and have a lower startle response,” says Cohen. “This explains why some people are startled by things as little as the sound of a door shut.”
Apart from oxytocin, there are other hormones in the body that are responsible for the hairs that stand up on your arms or the back of your neck when you’re frightened. Adrenaline, noradrenaline, and cortisol are three major stress hormones that work hand-in-hand with oxytocin. “These hormones can be horrible in certain situations,” Cohen says.
Basically, there should be a balance at all times.
“These hormones put your body in the flight-or-fight response,” he says. “It activates your nervous system and gets you all pumped up, like in the case of an adrenaline rush, which happens when you are afraid or exercising.”
Cohen explains, “There are certain people who have genes that make their cortisol level elevated, or once it is elevated it doesn’t come down as easily. As a result, they don’t know how to bring it back to normal after being in a stressful situation.”
But he says oxytocin, serotonin, GABA, and BDNF — a hormone secreted from your brain when you exercise that helps with your memory — help reduce cortisol.
“Gamma aminobutyric acid (GABA) is a neurochemical mainly secreted in the brain. It is a chemical the brain uses to communicate between neurons,” Cohen says. “It tells the brain to calm down and tells the neurons to stop firing.”
Studies show that people with variation in their GABA receptors have different levels of anxiety, fear, and stress. If your body doesn’t produce enough GABA, you will have a greater level of fear.
Role of Cannabinoids in Fear
Also, a natural way that your body strikes a balance is by producing its natural cannabinoids, which help shut off our stress response.
An enzyme called FAAH helps break down these cannabinoids. The lower your level of FAAH, the more likely you are to quickly calm down after being startled. Those of us with higher levels tend to remain stressed after a fright.
Some people smoke plant-based cannabinoids (marijuana, or cannabis) because of the calming effect it has. Now the science behind it shows why pot makes you calmer.
The chemical CBD found in marijuana activates a receptor in your body that boosts serotonin production. That boost eases stress, and makes you happier and less afraid, says Rebecca Abraham, a certified cannabis nurse and founder of Acute on Chronic LLC in Illinois.
“Selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors (SSRIs) like Zoloft increase serotonin uptake and are used to treat people with anxiety disorders,” she says.
But just because cannabis has been proven to help with anxiety and fear does not mean that it doesn’t have side effects.
Abraham says a higher dose of cannabis will lead to the activation of your fight-or-flight response in the sympathetic nervous system, making you feel fear unnecessarily.
Passed Down by Families
Fear is also heritable trait, meaning it can be passed down from parent to child. Even twins who grew up apart from each other tend to have the same phobias because they share the same DNA responsible for the fears they feel.
Edie Moser, a licensed social worker and journalist in Pennsylvania, says she inherited certain fears from her dad.
“My father grew up in a lower-income family and worried about having enough. As a result, he worked excessive hours to support us,” she says. “I inherited that fear and became a workaholic who has always held down several jobs simultaneously to ensure that my financial needs would be met.”
Although medications can manage fear, different people have different ways of taking care of it.
Moser says she talks to family and friends who offer support. She also engages in positive affirmation and what she calls “Godversations” as a way to put herself together.
Feibel suggests that people can use therapy to conquer their fears.
She says, “One of the best types of therapies is exposure therapy. It can help a person become used to something that they fear little by little, thereby lessening the anxiety each time.”
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