(Illustration: Erik Mace for Yahoo Health)
I consider myself a pretty rational human being.
I stay (relatively) calm in stressful situations. Most people would call me logical and level-headed.
So why is it that I come UNGLUED AF when a butterfly comes anywhere close to me?
It’s not just butterflies — I’m terrified of pretty much anything with more than four legs (or no legs, ‘sup worms and snails). But I don’t just draw the line there. Heights and I are not friends: You’ll find me standing very safely away from the edge of any balconies or cliffs. And I’m that grown adult covering her eyes and ears and whispering “la la la” when the latest Paranormal Activity trailer comes on in the movie theater.
I know I’m not the only one, though. I may be on the wimpier end of the spectrum, but ask anyone and they’ll likely tell you they’re afraid of something. Maybe it’s mice. Maybe it’s blood, or being stuck with a needle. Maybe it’s being in a small, enclosed space. Maybe it’s clowns.
“Fear is universal,” fear expert and sociologist Margee Kerr, PhD, tells me. Kerr is the author of SCREAM: Chilling Adventures in the Science of Fear and also works with ScareHouse, a Pittsburgh-based haunted house, collecting and analyzing data on what effectively scares the public. So, it’s safe to say Kerr knows a thing or two about fear.
Even though everyone is afraid at least sometimes, “what does vary is the sensitivity to perceived threatening stimuli,” Kerr says. “For some, just the thought of a spider will send their body into a state of stress, if not full flight or flight (otherwise known as our threat response).”
How sensitive someone is to a (perceived) threat involves many factors, a big one being his or her personality. “Those who are more resilient tend to handle stress and fear better,” Kerr explains. But genes factor in, too: They influence our stress response at a physiological level, which can then impact how our “thinking” brain makes sense of a threat, she adds.
“For example, if a person has a very intense physiological response to seeing a spider — his heart starts racing, his hands sweat — he will ascribe more importance, more fear, to that stimuli than someone who has a more subtle or no physiological response at all,” Kerr says.
Personal history also plays a huge role. It usually only takes one bad experience to solidify a “fearful” relationship in the brain, a phenomenon called fear conditioning. “We are the product of thousands of years of evolution that fine-tuned our threat response to ensure that we would recognize, respond, remember, and avoid anything that could harm us,” Kerr explains.
But we don’t have to experience something negative to know to be afraid of it. We can also learn fear from others — which Kerr says is a good thing. “Can you imagine if we had to experience every harmful thing ourselves to learn to fear it? We’d have died out long ago,” she says. “So scary stories around the campfire did a lot more than just entertain — they taught people what to look out for, avoid, and fear in the great unknown.”
That means we can read a book or watch a movie and find ourselves with a whole set of new fears the next day. “When we watch or imagine something happening to someone else, we understand and make sense of it by experiencing [it], though to a lesser degree, ourselves,” Kerr says. It’s the same reason why we cry when we watch a sad movie, or scream or jump when we watch a thriller: “The same parts of the brain activated in the victim of the story are activated in the listener.”
But what is it about my specific phobias of that makes them so unbearable? I decided to find out by seeking out experts for each.
As I alluded to before, horror and I do not mix. Ryan Murphy, I’m sure your show is great but I’ll never be a fan of American Horror Story. You won’t catch me on one of those “haunted hotel” tours. And I don’t *do* horror movies — I get scenes from them stuck in my head, and they don’t even have to be that scary. That part in Signs when the video camera catches the alien walking across the path? Scared the cr*p out of me. And that scene from The Sixth Sense when the ghost hidden under the bed grabs Haley Joel Osment’s legs? Couldn’t get it out of my head for weeks. (And yes, I realize neither of these movies are even considered true horror.)