The sun is setting sooner than I thought it would. Wouldn’t it be funny if I got lost in the woods? I’m not really in the woods, this is just a park. Stop being dramatic. It’s really getting dark out. The path took us pretty close to the edge of the cliff, watch your feet. You brought a flashlight, so pull it out. That doesn’t make you paranoid, that makes you smart. FLASHLIGHT ON. What’s that dark thing? AUDIBLE GASP. That dark thing just moved. Whew, it’s a raccoon. Thank goodness it wasn’t a werewolf. A werewolf? My heart is racing, chill out. You have got to stop binging “Lore”. DEEP MEDITATIVE BREATH, DEEP MEDITATIVE BREATH. Ok, you are an idiot, who goes for a walk in the woods at 5:45 pm in October? Now seriously, where is the exit to this park? Why are there so many paths to choose? Please let us be on the right path, I really want to get out of here. Where is the parking lot? Where is the parking lot? Whew, other people’s voices; we’re not the only ones out here. Light in the distance! Light in the distance! Parking lot! AUDIBLE SIGH OF RELIEF. Hurray! HAHAHAHAHA, a nighttime walk in the woods, what a horrible idea, but that was fun!
Those were my stream of consciousness thoughts when a walk in the park turned fearful after sunset. Racing heart, racing thoughts, and my ‘fight or flight’ response was kicking in. I have a vivid imagination and my irrational thoughts were starting to run rampant. I was scared, but I liked it. Not five minutes after, I was in the parking lot and my surge of fearful emotions had passed. I was happy and thought it was a really cool experience that I was glad to have, and wondered when I would be scared again.
What’s wrong with me? Do I actually want to be scared? Sociologist Margee Kerr makes me feel like less of a weirdo. Her TEDEd video, “Why is it so fun to be scared?” explains the psychology of why the experience of fear can also be so fun.
The key to enjoying fearful experiences is safety. The perceived threat needs to feel real, not be real. In my example, I was in a park right outside of the city of Milwaukee. I wasn’t anywhere remote. If I was actually lost, I would have wandered into someone’s yard and easily gotten help. Though getting too close to the edge of the cliff or scaring a wild animal are dangerous situations, most of my fear was imaginary. I was very safe.
A long walk under a full moon, visiting a haunted house, or going to an escape room are all safe ways to intentionally experience fear. Scaring yourself can have some positive impacts on your mood, especially if you find that your mental energy is being spent on stress and anxiety. Below are therapeutic benefits that fear may help you gain.
Fear is distracting: When the amygdala, the part of the brain that detects and responds to threats, is activated, all of your focus goes to the threat. You are alert and able to concentrate. This level of focus offers temporary distraction from everyday stresses.
Fear is an opportunity to practice your coping skills: Use of breath control and challenging irrational thoughts are frequent interventions for anxiety. A safe, scary experience offers real time opportunities to use and develop these skills.
Fear builds self-esteem: Overcoming a frightening experience can positively impact our self-esteem. Whether experiencing a true danger or a perceived one, surviving a fearful experience provides a sense of accomplishment. You survived the threat. The successful experience increases confidence and over time, builds a more positive self-perception.
Fear helps you overcome fear: A common response to something fearful is to avoid it. This may work for the short-term or for easily avoidable threats, but can be inhibiting over time. Exposure therapy is a behavioral approach to addressing fear-based anxiety. In a controlled therapeutic setting, an individual is exposed to the feared object, activity, or situation. The exposure can show an individual that they are capable of surviving what they had been avoiding, process the emotions related to that exposure, and over time, weaken the anticipatory anxiety related to the fear.
Kate N., MS, CEAP, joined Empathia in 2005 as an EAP Counselor, then became a Performance Specialist in 2012. Kate has a master’s degree in Educational Psychology and is devoted to helping individuals determine how to make lasting changes. Prior to joining Empathia, she worked in the social work field as a case manager for Child Protective Services. Kate enjoys baking, yoga and escaping into the woods of Northern Wisconsin.