How To Not Be Scared

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S1: Tell me a little bit like what’s the scariest thing that ever happened to you.

S2: Well that’ll be a conversation for my therapist because you know I mean our fears are there. They’re deep they’re personal things which for me is just more evidence of why we should find opportunities to kind of play with it to know it to not be afraid of it. This is how to I’m Charles to.

S3: Each week we talk to listeners to reach out to us with a problem. They want to know how to fix it. On today’s episode Be Afraid Be Very Afraid. Just like this week’s listener My name is Becca.

S4: And I am from Bradenton Florida.

S1: So. So Beckett you reached out to us because you have a problem. Tell. Tell me a little bit about it.

S5: I am very scared of the stupidest things to be scared of. So I have such a strong physical reaction if I’m spooked or being chased or anything like that I immediately shut down and start crying and just can’t help it.

S6: Oh my gosh that sounds unpleasant.

S7: How is coming up especially when your husband likes to go to haunted houses and hasn’t been able to for the six years you’ve been together with him.

S8: So are you are you kind of like a meek person like Are you Are you a scaredy cat in general or is this kind of unusual.

S7: No no I it is it’s super unusual so I am not a meek person. I don’t think anyone would ever describe me that way. Physically I’m 6 foot tall so I’m. I’m a big fairly dominant physical person. I am bold and strong willed and all of those things and I don’t know why this gets me.

S9: Here’s the thing. All of us get scared sometimes right. This is totally natural. In fact just a couple weeks ago I was I’m staying in a cabin in the woods for the weekend and I’d put my kids to bed and before I went to bed I looked in the bathroom and a humidifier had been turned on and there were all these clouds of steam. And for some reason like I just convinced myself that a killer had broken into the house and had turned on the humidifier and he was going to wait until I was in bed to kill me. So I went downstairs and I actually got like a knife and I slept with a knife on the bed stand next to me and the next morning it turned out that my 11 year old had just turned on the humidifier because he thought that was cool. But the point is everyone gets scared all the time and so we actually went out and we found an expert to help us get to the bottom of how to handle that.

S10: My name is Margie ker. I’m a sociologist and author and I study fear. After this short break we’ll see if Margie can help Becca understand her fear and and my fear and your fear and how to live with that fear and maybe even laugh at it.

S11: At least long enough to enjoy Halloween.

S12: Boo. We’re back with a scary expert Margi Coeur. She’s not scary herself she’s that you know what I mean. And we’re talking with our listener Becca about how to survive a haunted house. But Marcie’s advice it also applies to other kinds of irrational fears like being scared of heights or of spiders or of a humidifier in your bathroom or really anything else you wish you weren’t scared of but you are so Becca can I ask you Have you ever been to a haunted house that you’ve enjoyed.

S10: Do you have any memories as a kid or you know anytime throughout high school of going to a haunted house and having fun.

S13: So my husband and I went to there was this local thing at our local zoo called Zoo boo. It was designed for children. That was OK. We couldn’t go in all of the houses because some of them were too much.

S2: What about scary movies. Did you grow up watching scary movies.

S7: No. No scary movies.

S8: Becca has two brothers who used to spook her a lot when they were kids but she didn’t really realize how big a problem this was or how severely she reacted until she went to a theme park on Halloween when she was 16 years old.

S5: I’m in Florida and so near me is Tampa and they have at one of the local theme parks they have this huge haunted house thing called hallow scream. And so they change all of the rides into haunted houses. They have scary zones.

S7: And so I went to the hollow scream with a group of friends and I went through one haunted house and began using my friend who is probably 5 5 as a shield. I mean ducked behind her crying head down made it through that house and then for the rest of the thing because I had to get out of the park and just screamed anytime anyone got close to me you can’t touch me you can’t touch me you can’t touch it.

S6: It was. It was awful.

S8: Do you remember what you were feeling like at that moment.

S5: I mean just sweating. Overwhelmed sensory overload like you see the coffin and you see the person laying down in it and you’re like OK this person is going to jump up and scare me. It doesn’t matter like it.

S1: It still gets me and and and then you met your husband and he loves haunted houses.

S5: He loves Halloween loves haunted houses and the experience of going out and just you know likes to be frightened which I don’t understand. And one day I was in the closet and I was doing something and he accidentally came up behind me and I just didn’t hear him. And he said my name. And it scared me so bad I started crying and he decided we would never go to a haunted house.

S6: Does it ever happen at work.

S7: It has obvious like a storage closet organizing something doing something and someone to walk in and just just say my name and I’m just so frightened I I don’t know how else to describe it. I’ll just be so frightened my eyes here. I start crying.

S6: One tip that we’re definite learning is that you should avoid closets. Yeah I should yeah you should know that if there’s anyone else around you then like a 100 foot radio I need an armoire. No closets just dresser. Exactly. Well this is really I’m glad you reached out to us because this is a fascinating problem. I don’t think I’ve ever talked to anyone just like had this kind of reaction before. Which brings us to Tamar.

S14: Well I kind of like Becca. I have a pretty sensitive startle reflex and I am very quick to jump but I grew up really loving it and I also as a sociologist thought wait.

S2: You know I’m I’m studying all about how fear is very negative and yet at the same time I really want to go to a haunted house. What is that all about.

S1: And when you have that startle do you feel the same way that the Becca does is the sort of teary shut down like just kind of fall apart.

S2: It’s I it’s very very similar physiological reaction so the startle reflexes you know it’s just that 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 you know it is our body kind of going oh you know.

S8: So let me ask you so what’s happening inside our mind when we get scared like Ted. Tell me about like the startle reflexes. Is this something that everyone has.

S2: 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. And it’s really just kind of all systems turning to the present moment and ensuring that we are well fueled and and also protected from pain.

S8: So what you’re saying is that we’ve evolved this response to like focus on what’s actually in front of us because it might if it startle us it might be something that’s dangerous. So so we just we react we we’re not thinking about what it means or why we don’t need to be scared we just have a freak out fear response because because it could be something dangerous. Is that right.

S2: Yeah. No absolutely. And so for some people you can see that in a haunted house where they they scream and jump but then immediately start laughing because you know it does leave people feeling better just their mood improves. And that those changes are related to feeling like they challenged themselves that they overcame their fears. So it’s amazing even though we know completely rationally that nothing is going to hurt us at a scary movie or you know haunted house. It still leaves us with a sense of satisfaction similar to you know choosing to to run a five K Or go rock climbing. But that’s all very context specific.

S1: Yes. So that if the guys running after you with a chainsaw in the 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 chainsaw in a maze.

S2: Oh absolutely. You know 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 you know her brother scaring her it sounds like there was a tipping point where it was like You know what. This isn’t fun anymore. And you know research shows a lot of it is you know that that choice that that moment that you say I want to do this and you know I’m choosing to do this. You know it’s often the difference between something being fun and challenging or potentially traumatizing.

S15: And so this is the first big rule about how to not be scared if you can find ways to feel in control then you can get better at controlling the startle reflex that that rush of panic and energy that evolution’s made into this automatic reaction.

S16: So when people have a really intense response which it sounds like Becca does it can feel kind of out of control like you don’t know that your body is ever going to come back down and it’s like it’s going to feel you know that intense forever. And so after people calm down it’s it’s nice to kind of take a moment and put like a bookmark on it to remind yourself like oh I feel normal again I did come back down so next time you know I’ll remember that this doesn’t last forever.

S9: OK here’s the second rule. Pay attention to your body’s fear response and then bookmark the moment when the fear subsides. That way you’re going to build up these memories that you’re in control. In this moment of fear it’s going to end.

S17: Maybe what I need to do is celebrate and take satisfaction in that. It doesn’t last forever and sort of live in that moment a little bit longer.

S2: Yeah it’s definitely embrace the start. Yeah 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 and embrace it. And that actually helps you know buffer against the more negative aspects of it.

S8: That’s the next rule. Embrace the startle.

S2: Well and I always like to point out 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 will make it easier so for people who really have nothing but negative associations to being scared I suggest doing something that is a equal balance of fun and scary. So whether that’s like a really campy B movie with a lot of startles or going to a amusement park and doing some of the more just kind of fun family friendly stuff to to basically recruit both the reward systems but also the stress response systems. So it becomes just a a whole mixed bag and then you have these memories and you have no experience of it not just being bad.

S18: Here’s another rule tried to make the fear more fun. Becca how would you do that. What do you think you would do to try and find something where you’re gonna be a little bit startled but it’s also gonna be surrounded by enough fun that maybe you kind of. Reprogram your anxiety or foreboding about going into a startling situation.

S19: So I’m thinking about tackling that the scarier of the kids haunted houses that I was unable to go into before.

S20: And just to be clear these these are haunted houses for like little kids really. Oh yes. Made for children. Oh.

S2: I would ask. What do you already find fun instead of trying to make something that sounds like it’s just awful to convince yourself that it’s fun finding something that you do like that you do enjoy and finding a way to just tweak it to push it in a direction that would be you know more of a challenge. So if you do like running you know maybe try out one of the tough mutters or the zombie runs where you have zombies chasing you to try and find things that you do like and just add a little bit of of fear on top of it.

S8: And this is the flip side of that previous rule try to make fun things more fearful.

S21: There is one that the zombie run that you brought up is outside. And so maybe not being in such a confined space where I can feel a little freer and all of that might might be a good idea to start out with.

S14: Yeah and you could get a little reflective mirror on it 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.

S7: There you go. Yeah I like that. And I mean like I I really do love Halloween like I want to have fun in these things like I truly truly do. And with Halloween coming up.

S9: Figuring out how to handle sphere. That’s not a small thing. Particularly because we know that there’s a serious side of being scared that the chills that go up and down your spine in the past they helped you stay alive.

S22: That’s all after this quick break.

S8: You know we’ve been talking about scary moments that are kind of fun scary moments right or scary moments where we’re ultimately like Becca is in control and Margi you’re in control but I’m wondering like I mean obviously these these reactions evolved not for situations like that right they evolved for situations where we should be scared. And let me sir let me start with you Marty. Has there ever been a time in your life where a scary thing happened. That was like legitimately scary like you were right to be scared.

S2: Oh gosh yeah. Yeah. And oh yeah and we definitely need our threat response. You know the the goal is definitely not to to do away with fear but to have a better understanding of of our physical reaction and appreciate it for protecting us. You know the gut feeling that people talk about or just the the chills down their spine. A lot of times that is informing us that something doesn’t seem quite right in the environment. So I came home from work one day and there was a street fight right literally right in front of my house and it was kids who were fighting so I they probably were between 12 and 15 years old. And the fear that I felt was not for my own safety I mean I was you know still in my car at that point. It was very different kind of fear than I have ever felt. It happened when I saw one of the girls and she pulled the tank top of another girl which broken and the you know the girl fell to the cement and and there was a lot of violence. And that really shook me to my core. And and was was scary but in a different way I’ve actually had you know a couple of attempted robberies and it just stuck with me in a in a really really powerful way that to this day I’ll have nightmares sometimes. It was really scary.

S1: And the interesting thing about it is that like you you weren’t personally in danger that moment right. You were in your car right. But you’re seeing this scary thing. Why do you think it affected you so deeply. Why do you still have dreams about it.

S2: I think you know it is a kind of testament to how we evolved together that that the fact that we experienced each other’s emotions so deeply or have the ability to our emotions are are contagious in that way. And you know anger fear all of those high arousal negative moments are all kind of the same soup.

S1: What about you Becca is there is there a time that you can think of where were you were you were genuinely scared and for good reason.

S19: Yeah. And it’s funny cause my situation is different but I felt a lot of parallels as she was speaking. I was in a situation a few times where there was sort of a domestic violence situation happening around me. I wasn’t the one involved but it was very explosive and felt like it could have turned towards me very quickly. And that was a time where I was very fearful fearful for myself and fearful for the person who was the victim right in that moment. And I was thinking as Maggie was talking in those moments as I was trying to go through my my Rolodex of fearful moments I think in moments of true fear I actually sort of respond with more of a fight reflex than I do in moments of fake fear not fake fear but you know I mean oh I it’s it’s incredible that the depth that we can feel for other people who are going through something painful or scary and it’s connected to that piece of control as you guys were talking about this I was trying to think of like a time that I was scared and at one point I was a reporter in Iraq and this is back sort of when the war was going on and I was in this military convoy and we were going down this road and a bomb went off underneath the Humvee that I was in.

S1: And just by chance that the Humvee it was I had all this armor and so so the bomb didn’t penetrate the car if it had been less armored everyone would have been killed inside. And I just almost like emotionally froze like it was almost like it was almost like I was like observing this like kind of clinically from 10 feet away. And they they they rushes out of the car and everything is happening so fast and they throw us into this other car and they speed off and we make it to this base. And my translator was just like totally debilitated by fear. And in the emotions that I had afterwards were that I felt so guilty that I had gotten this guy into this this situation where he was clearly so scared and also this like weird instinct to kind of act blasé about it like like I was clearly completely overwhelmed by it. Completely freaked out but you know there wasn’t any other effects like I was in Iraq for a couple weeks actually months more and I just didn’t even think about it. But then and when I got back to the U.S. I was I was driving on the freeway in California in these cars like boxed me in just like normal like driving on the freeway. And I had this panic attack like my eyes started bouncing up and down and I was sweating and having this panic attack and I just didn’t even know what to do I couldn’t even process it yeah.

S2: For some that’s terrifying and I’m truly so sorry that that you and everyone experienced that. And it sounds like you may have. You did kind of experience a mild kind of dissociation in that moment and that can be adaptive. You know separating ourselves when things are too intense could be the only thing that we can do in that moment to survive to to you know not fall apart. And so I always tell people you know your reaction is your reaction and it’s it’s part of you and it’s no you don’t have to feel guilty or anything like that. That’s that’s that’s it’s OK.

S23: OK. So. So we’ve got a month so. So Becca’s already put out her her Halloween decorations. We’ve got a month for her to prepare herself to go to the haunted house with her husband. What’s the three things that she should do to get ready.

S24: Well I think the first is to make sure she wants to do it. And and if she doesn’t then then don’t. The second is to definitely find a place or an environment that is going to be safe. It’s it’s ironic but you can you know kind of let go of your defenses and fully be present in the moment. So some place for kids or even just a really fun be kind of scary movie or a hunted hayride something where you don’t actually have to to walk. You can just sort of enjoy this scares coming to you. And then another recommendation might be to try and flip the script and scare other people who want to be scare.

S23: So going to a haunted house and volunteering for a night or kind of seeing what it’s like from the other end and that offers another opportunity to have different memories of scary experiences in the context of fun and choice and this is the last rule try turning the tables on your fear by scaring other people or at least working in a haunted house or doing something like that 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.

S25: In other words do something where you feel in control where you can remind yourself that this doesn’t have to be scary.

S8: Becca What do you think of that idea. Like like do you think would it be fun for you to go work in a haunted house.

S26: I’d have to make it in there first. Oh yeah.

S7: That’s I mean that’s a really interesting idea. It’s a really great idea. I

S19: told my husband before I got here that I was scared I was just going to show up somewhere and everyone was going to scare me.

S26: So it’s considerably more helpful than the exposure therapy I thought I was going to receive.

S21: But no this is this has been really really helpful and given me hope that I can get past this as opposed to it just being sorry this is how you are. You’re you’re a scaredy cat. This is the way you’ll be.

S2: Well I think that just accepting that oh I have a sensitive startle reflex and you know yay on me and my ancestors for ringing the ballot really in a head start on running away or fighting you know accepting and understanding it is is the first step. So maybe Becca that’s the thing is that every time you have that reaction when like someone somewhere when you’re in the closet and someone says shouldn’t be mean you and you have that’s kind of like fear freak out maybe the thing to do is it then turn to them and say By the way that’s why my ancestors lived longer than your are because we ran away first.

S18: Thank you to Becca for opening up about her deepest darkest fears. We didn’t even get into the vampires or or my in-laws for that matter. And thanks to market her for putting all of our concerns to rest make sure to pick up Maggie’s fascinating book scream chilling adventures in the science of fear. And a quick update with just a few days to go until Halloween. Becca sent us this voice memo.

S27: Hey guys we decided to go with the family haunted house this year and one of the kids in line made me go first. So I might have teared up a little bit and possibly curse the once in front of children but I think this is progress and I want to thank you both so much. Talking it out reframing this experience as a fun challenge and having the humility to laugh and celebrate after made this time so much better for me and for my husband. Thanks again guys and happy Halloween everyone.

S9: Way to go Becca. Next thing you know you’re gonna be the one in the haunted house with the chainsaw scaring everyone else. Do you have something you want to know how to do. Or a problem we can help fix. Send us a note at how to at Slate dot com.

S18: Or we would love to hear about your fears. You can tell us about them on Twitter by using the hashtag how to pod or call and leave us a voicemail at 6 4 6 4 9 5 4 0 0 1. And we might play it on the show. Finally please subscribe for free and give us a five star rating and a review and Apple podcasts that helps people find the show. And that means that we can help more people and you know it all works out. How tos executive producer is Derek John Rachel Allen is our production assistant in Merritt Jacob is our engineer. Our theme music is by Hannah’s Brown. June Thomas is the senior managing producer of Slate podcasts and Gabriel Roth is Slate’s editorial director for audio. Special thanks to Matthew Simonton and Asha soldier. I’m Charles Duhigg. Thanks for listening.

S22: And have a happy Halloween.