On this week’s episode of How To!, Charles Duhigg helps listener Becca conquer her fears, just in time for Halloween. Becca spooks easily. She can’t do scary movies or haunted houses—even the kiddie ones. She’s been known to burst into tears at the sound of an unexpected voice behind her. But she still wants to celebrate Halloween. In this excerpt from the show, sociologist Margee Kerr, author of Scream: Chilling Adventures in the Science of Fear, offers Becca a few simple tips for getting her fear under control. This transcript has been condensed and edited for clarity.
Margee Kerr: The startle reflex is just that immediate and automatic response of the sympathetic nervous system, and some people are more sensitive to it than others. And so in that moment, it is our body going, “Oh!”
Charles Duhigg: What’s happening inside our mind when we get scared? Tell me about the startle reflex. Is this something that everyone has?
Margee: Yeah, it’s essentially our body doing everything it can to prepare for survival. So that means kicking our metabolism into high gear, increasing our respiration, our heart rate increases. It’s really just all systems turning to the present moment and ensuring that we are well-fueled and also protected from pain.
Charles: So we’ve evolved this response to focus on what’s exactly in front of us because if it startled us, it might be something that’s dangerous. So we react. We’re not thinking about what it means or why we don’t need to be scared. We just have a freakout fear response because it could be something dangerous. Is that right?
And so for some people, in a haunted house, they scream and jump but then immediately start laughing because it does leave people feeling better. Their mood improves, and those changes are related to feeling like they challenged themselves, they overcame their fears. It’s amazing. Even though we know completely rationally that nothing is going to hurt us at a scary movie or in a haunted house, it still leaves us with a sense of satisfaction similar to choosing to run a 5K or go rock climbing. But that’s all very context-specific.
Charles: Yeah. If the guy’s running after you with a chain saw in the maze, it makes a big difference if your friends are there and it’s a haunted house as opposed to an actual guy with a chain saw in a maze.
Margee: Oh, absolutely. We do process all of that information differently when we have made a choice and when we feel like it’s in our control. And I was thinking with Becca, with her brother scaring her, it sounds like there was a tipping point where it was like, “You know what? This isn’t fun anymore.” Research shows a lot of it is that choice, that moment that you say, “I want to do this, and I’m choosing to do this.” It’s often the difference between something being fun and challenging or potentially traumatizing.
Remember you’re in control.
Charles: If you can find ways to feel in control, then you can get better at controlling the startle reflex, that rush of panic and energy that evolution’s made into this automatic reaction.
Margee: When people have a really intense response, it can feel out of control, like you don’t know that your body is ever going to calm back down and it’s going to feel that intense forever. And so after people calm down, it’s nice to take a moment and put a bookmark on it to remind yourself, Oh, I feel normal again. I did come back down. So next time, I’ll remember that this doesn’t last forever.
Charles: That way, you’re going to build up these memories that you’re in control, and this moment of fear, it’s going to end.
Becca: Maybe what I need to do is celebrate and take satisfaction in that it doesn’t last forever and live in that moment a little bit longer.
Margee: Yes, definitely embrace the startle. That’s such a huge part of it. Just be like, Oh, my gosh, this is such an interesting thing about myself. And accept it and own it and embrace it. That actually helps buffer against the more negative aspects of it.
Make fear fun.
Margee: I’m not a clinician, so this is just my advice through research and observation, but my colleague and I are working on a study to measure if just adding fun to scary will make it easier. For people who really have nothing but negative associations to being scared, I suggest doing something that is an equal balance of fun and scary. It could be a really campy B-movie with a lot of startles or going to an amusement park and doing some of the more fun, family-friendly stuff to basically recruit both the reward systems but also the stress response systems, so it becomes just a whole mixed bag. And then you have these memories and you have experience of it not just being bad.
Charles: Becca, how would you do that? What do you think you would do to try and find something where you’re going to be a little bit startled, but it’s also going to be surrounded by enough fun that maybe you reprogram your anxiety or foreboding about going into a startling situation?
Becca: I’m thinking about tackling the scarier of the kids haunted houses that I was unable to go into before.
Charles: And just to be clear, these are haunted houses for little kids, right?
Becca: Oh, yes. Made for children.
Margee: I would ask, “What do you already find fun?” Instead of trying to make something that sounds like it’s just awful and convince yourself that it’s fun, find something that you do enjoy and find a way to just tweak it, to push it in a direction that would be more of a challenge. So if you do like running, maybe try out one of the Tough Mudders or the zombie runs where you have zombies chasing you. Try and find things that you do like and just add a little bit of fear on top of it.
Becca: The zombie run that you brought up is outside. Maybe not being in such a confined space, where I can feel a little freer and all of that, might be a good idea to start out with.
Margee: Yeah. And you could get a little reflective mirror on your headband so you can see the zombies coming and then it increases that sense of agency, like, Oh, I see them, and I can get away.
Becca: I like that. And I really do love Halloween. I want to have fun in these things. I truly, truly do.
Charles: OK. What are the three things that she should do to get ready?
Margee: Well, I think the first is to make sure she wants to do it, and if she doesn’t, then don’t. The second is to definitely find a place or an environment that is going to be safe. It’s ironic, but you can kind of let go of your defenses and fully be present in the moment—some place for kids or even just a really fun, scary B-movie or a haunted hayride, something where you don’t actually have to walk. You can just enjoy the scares coming to you.
Scare someone else.
Margee: Try and flip the script and scare other people who want to be scared—going to a haunted house and volunteering for a night or seeing what it’s like from the other end. That offers another opportunity to have different memories of scary experiences in the context of fun and choice.
Charles: Or if you’re scared of spiders, maybe decorate your house with spiders or dress up like a spider for Halloween or volunteer at the local nature center and spend time near the tarantula cage. In other words, do something where you feel in control, where you can remind yourself that this doesn’t have to be scary.