Brain Waves with Debra Rose

Photo by: Lee Bertrand

Embracing Fear

The recent threat of a hurricane Henri’s direct hit prompted a rush to gas stations, grocery stores, and a traffic-fueled mass exodus heading west.  What is curious about managing the unknown and potential disaster is the lurking presence of thrill in the chaos.


Horror movies, roller coasters, big wave surfing.  We voluntarily take the opportunity to scare ourselves, so what is the psychological and emotional attraction to being afraid?


We seek suspense that appears to be “safe,” we know the movie ends, the storm is over, we ride the wave or go down the mountain.  These are moments when one may feel more “alive,” alert or present.  Laird Hamilton describes some of the appeal in surfing big waves around 70 feet high, a nightmare to some of us. “Some people seek nightmares out,” according to Hamilton.  Finding enjoyment in feeling fear that does not seem life threatening to him, and others is compelling.  


“I know that if I scare myself once a day, I’m a better person.  And I think everybody would be. I think it’s part of actually existing,” states Hamilton.


Fear is emotional, and precipitates a behavioral response of freezing, fight, or flight.  This can be a source of pleasure if we know the distress is going to end.  In an odd way, we feel in control when we can manufacture our own suspense.  The brain chemicals associated with the flood of relief is a product of the adrenaline rush we experience.  Dopamine and endorphins are euphoric; think of the runners high you hear about.


If you happen to be a thrill-seeker, testing your fear tolerance can be a satisfying experience.  Those seeing films like ‘Jaws’ for the first time look away and then cannot seem to stop watching. The larger threats such as pending natural disasters may prompt a faux and fast closeness with others.  Often, we mistake this bonding with actual attachment when it is merely the experience, not the person or people that we are reacting and bonding to.  Maybe we want to feel like there is something out there that is bigger than we are.


As humans we are curious about the unknown, but we also want our world in somewhat predictable order.  Change unnerves us, and deviations in our routines are not always welcomed.  But sweeping fear gives us a distinct break in our habits and maybe we are not always accurate about calculating the risks involved in a situation.  In other words, we may be in denial and think we are invincible.


So, the next storm, big wave, scary film you encounter, think about the satisfaction that may be mingling with your fear.  Maybe it is a rare time to display our human nature.  As reflected by Laird Hamilton regarding physical fear, “I think that we have gone so far away from that.  A dinosaur was chasing you and wanting to eat you.  I think we need [some fear].”