This year, as Halloween is getting back to normal, instead of being consumed by our fears of COVID-19, we can step back, reflect and think about our fascination with scary things. Of particular interest is the paradox between our enjoyment of being scared by unreal threats, on the one hand, and our avoidance and denial of real threats on the other.
We celebrate and enjoy horror movies and other things which can temporarily scare us. Yet , as we have seen in the large number of people who reject science and remain unvaccinated or refuse to wear masks or take other reasonable precautions to prevent contracting or spreading the coronavirus. Sadly, many Americans deny the reality and the severity of COVID-19. Although counter-intuitive, psychology can explain, at least in part , why this strange contradiction exists. Understanding the Deeper Meaning behind Ghosts and Zombies: The psychological significance of Halloween | Pastoral Counseling Syracuse NY (revmichaelheath.com)
To begin, let’s understand why we love scary things like movies and Halloween. When we are scared, our brain releases dopamine which gives us a rush. The neurochemical reaction is emotionally stimulating and similar to the terror response caused by a real threat or crisis. However, horror movie thrills are significantly different from the experience of actual danger because the rational part of our brain knows that the scary perception isn’t real. This enjoyment is the same sensation we feel when riding on a roller coaster or in other thrill seeking activities. We like it because it is exciting but down deep, we know that we are safe. We know that we are safe because our neo-cortex , the part of the brain which is rational, assesses the situation to be safe. Why do we like to be scared? The science behind the scream (today.com)
On the other hand, our brain is constructed to protect us from real danger, which emotionally translates to avoidance or denial. This tendency to bury our head in the sand comes from the fact that our brain includes more than than just the rational cortex. It also has a primitive part called the amygdale and limbic system which is fear based and not rational.
We tend to deny real threats when they are overwhelming and we feel out of control. We become overwhelmed and panic when there is a real threat confronting us because we don’t know how to handle the dangerous situation o how to feel safe. Neurologically, to make matters worse, the panic which comes from being emotionally overwhelmed causes the amygdale , the hypervigilant part of the brain which constantly looks for threats, to hi-jack and block access to the logical part of our brain which, in the case of a real threat, would cause us to take reasonable action.
In some cases, fear causes us to become angry and attack the threat. In other cases, it causes us to run away. Denial or disbelief is a type of emotional running away which gives us some emotional space to avoid having to deal with or engage the problem before we are ready.
In practical and every day terms, we are often in denial. For example, we all are going to die and that is , at some level, a real threat. That said, if we are healthy or don’t suffer from hypochondriasis, we don’t think about it very often. Denial in that sense is not a problem. In fact, it allows us to live our lives with less worry. On the other hand, if our doctor tells us that we have a serious condition which needs treatment and we, despite many warnings chose to deny and avoid getting treatment , the results could be catastrophic.
Fortunately, there are effective techniques to help us to sort out and and identify irrational fears and problematic denial from normal avoidance. Here are three basic steps to follow when fear and denial has blocked access to your neo-cortex:
Recognize that your Fears are Irrational
Is there something which you believe which disregards or goes against established scientific evidence or historical fact ? Are you avoiding taking action toward something which would be prudent because it is too uncomfortable for you to think about or do? Is it possible that your irrational fears may have caused you to ignore or neglect something important because you just don’t want to think about it ?
Calm Your Fears
When we panic and access to our rational cortex has been interrupted, it is crucial to re-establish connection with our cortex. To do this, the limbic system needs to be calmed. To calm your limbic system it is necessary to block exposure to threatening stimuli media sources, conversations or even internal negative thoughts. Passively focusing on body sensations and other non-stressful stimuli will, within a few minutes, cut off the secretion of stress hormones like cortisol and adrenaline and you will be able to think reasonably again.
Activities like meditation, intentional breathing, Yoga, exercise and listening to music can do the trick.
- Reality-Test your assumptions or beliefs.
Once you have access to your cortex, you will be able to rationally asses the fears and concerns that scare you and you will be able to understand, more realistically, how much of a threat they pose. To discover whether you may be in denial, check out the sources you relied on to support your beliefs. Activities like writing in a journal, self-talk, googling reliable sources for facts, and talking to friends will calm and will help give you a better perspective.
Whether the issue is COVID or any other upsetting situation or issue, it is important to develop the habit of monitoring your own over-reactions to life’s problems and challenges. Being able to be aware of and discern problematic denial , gross exaggeration , minimalization or any form of significant irrational thinking is accomplished by recognizing, calming the panic, reality testing. Although acting impulsively may be necessary in some rare situations to save you or another life, in general, rationally assessing initial impulses first , before deciding or acting, is usually the better course to follow. Mastering these important skills will help you to successfully manage stress and navigate the difficult waters of life’s journey.
The Rev. Michael Heath, LMHC, Fellow AAPC 11 1 2021
Image attribution : Michael Heath