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Why is it good to feel afraid

What is the purpose of fear? And why on earth do we seek out the experiences that trigger it if we then become afraid? In this article, we'll share some scientific tidbits with you.


The response to potential "danger" is controlled by the amygdala, an almond-shaped complex of neurons located in the innermost part of the brain's two temporal lobes.

When the amygdala perceives a threat, it sends a message to the hypothalamus, a small brain structure that in turn triggers the release of potent stress hormones. The so-called flight response is triggered: adrenaline keeps the body on alert, speeds up the heartbeat, and gets more blood to the muscles so we are ready to sprint. 

The hormone cortisol increases blood pressure: the vessels around the organs dilate, supplying them with oxygen and nutrients; breathing becomes faster and more oxygen reaches the brain; blood sugar levels rise and the body is filled with a special energy.


This reaction is immediate and very fast: the amygdala "decides" that a stimulus is frightening even before we perceive it. Only later the information is transmitted to the cortex, the outermost and least old layer of the brain, which is responsible for thinking, memory and consciousness.

When we finally decide that the danger has passed and the fear was exaggerated, this chemical tsunami is followed by the release of endorphins and dopamine, the feel-good hormones that reward us with a sense of euphoria.


Although chemistry certainly plays a role in making us "appreciate" fear, there is also an educational and social aspect that turns terrifying experiences into useful learning opportunities.

Situations that produce fear under safe conditions, such as horror movies, books, and series (or, earlier, scary stories around the campfire), are a way to train our ability to respond to uncertainty: We might think of them as instruction manuals for future critical situations.

Marc Malmdorf-Andersen, a psychologist and researcher at Aarhus University (Denmark), explains, "It is possible that relaxing forms of fear help improve emotional regulation and coping strategies. Enjoyment of the fear stimulus appears to be associated with mastery of unpredictable situations, just as children consciously seek moderate levels of uncertainty and surprise when playing to try to make sense of it."


However, there may be a "sweet spot" between fear and pleasure where the context is not too scary, but also not too controllable. This is where pleasure is greatest. This distinction is different for everyone and often blurred: it means that what amuses us is terrifying for other people. These distinctions should not be taken lightly, because too much sustained anxiety can be dysfunctional and lead to stress or other debilitating conditions.


Image by cookie_studio on Freepik

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