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Your Body on: Fright

Date:01-11-2013 08:50:18 read:4
Category:Man-->Diseases

Happy Halloween!

Halloween’s not for everyone. But from slasher-movie marathons to that “haunted warehouse” downtown, the chances that you’ll avoid something scary today are slim.

It turns out when you feel frightened, a lot goes on in your brain and body. In fact, those responses can be healthy: An energy-infused high from a sudden release of hormones—the psychological aftermath of surviving a freaky experience—can provide a euphoric sense of accomplishment or survival. And that holds true even if you knew you were never really in danger, says Margee Kerr, Ph.D., who researches fear and advises adult haunted houses on the best ways to make someone crap his pants.

The downside: Truly terrifying experiences—like being shot at in battle or surviving a car accident—can create lasting anxiety, phobias, or mental conditions like post-traumatic stress disorder. All of those can be rekindled by frightening situations—even the pretend kind, Kerr explains. (If you have a weak heart or severe anxiety, freaking out could even lead to cardiac arrest and death, case studies have shown. But those cases are extreme.)

What can you expect this Halloween? Here’s the anatomy of a freak out:

Just before a deranged, axe-wielding clown appears: Your internal systems are on the equivalent of cruise control, Kerr says. Your heart rate and blood hormones are at normal levels, and your nervous system is unexcited. Basically, things are cool.

Milliseconds later: In the instant before you fully recognize a threat, your brain has already started to prime your body for action. “It starts with one of your senses picking up on something that isn’t quite right,” says Kerr. It could be a foreign smell, or a creaking floorboard. Immediately, your amygdala—“the watchtower” of your brain—triggers the release of several hormones and neurotransmitters, including adrenaline, endorphins, and dopamine.

One second later: Those hormones elevate your heart rate, which increases the flow of blood and oxygen to your muscles, Kerr explains. Muscle tension and sugar levels also spike, providing you with a swell of energy in case you need to fight back or hightail it the hell out of there. Your pupils dilate in order to improve your vision, and you sweat to keep from overheating.

At the same time, your immune and digestive systems shut down to conserve energy, Kerr says. And if the threat is serious enough, your body can indeed jettison waste in order to aid your fight-or-flight capabilities, she adds.

30 seconds later: If the deranged clown turns out to be your buddy with a sick sense of humor, your parasympathetic nervous system will immediately begin to suppress the release of fear hormones, calming you down, Kerr explains. If the clown is real—yes, we’re going there—all your fight-or-flight hormones will keep flowing, providing you with your best chance for survival.

Fun Halloween freak-outs aside, what can you do to keep your worries in check? If you’re frightened by something you know is really harmless—don’t worry, we won’t tell!—ask a buddy to face your fear first. Watching a pal manage the source of your phobia helps your brain suppress your fear response, research shows.

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    Ever For Health Copy Rights 2013