Using recreational fear to overcome anxiety



Horror movies and series are among the most popular content on streaming platforms. They constitute a form of “recreational horror” or “recreational fear”, similar to experiences sought out by thrill-seekers, and they can help us find the courage to face everyday life.

While there’s an inclination to banish our fears – or at least chase them away – in our everyday lives, when it comes to getting a little tingle in front of our TV set, we don’t tend to mind. The popular appeal of such sensations is reflected in streaming platforms’ ratings. For instance, on Netflix, the horror series Stranger Things has surpassed one billion hours of viewing.

A way to improve our daily lives

Without going so far as talking about therapy, the experience of scaring yourself by watching the latest episode of American Horror Story or reading Stephen King on your sofa can help you overcome your anxieties. This is the concept of “recreational fear” described in the book Le jour où j’ai apprivoisé ma peur (The day I tamed my fear), by French psychologist Amélia Lobbé, published by Le Courrier du livre.

For the expert, known on Instagram as @Amélia_psychologue, recreational fear is fear that is intentionally sought after. It’s a mix of fear and fun. She takes care to differentiate between two types of recreational fear: Those lived via real-life experiences and those experienced through consuming fictional material such as movies, TV shows or novels.

In the first case, there is a risk of an accident, no matter how small. Parachute jumping, surfing, bungee jumping ... there are a host of extreme sports that can put a person in danger.

In front of a book, there is essentially zero risk. It’s much easier to watch Stranger Things than to sign up for an adventure sports session.

According to the psychologist, anxious people “usually have a lot of imagination and have a tendency to imagine the worst”. These activities allow their anxieties to take a material form, as well as providing ideas for solutions to get out of these situations.

“The goal is not just to scare yourself gratuitously,” says Lobbé, “having extraordinary experiences as part of recreational fear allows you to acquire skills that can be transferred to other situations. This can help in launching a project, asking for a raise, speaking in front of an audience, etc. These are all everyday activities, but they require courage.”

An addictive sensation?

Experiencing fear triggers hormones to be secreted. Adrenaline increases the heart rate, causing physical reactions such as sweating and dilated pupils. The stress hormone, cortisol, meanwhile causes muscles to tense.

“Even on the couch, the body gets ready to take action in real life,” explains Lobbé. The effects are the same, whether for a TV or movie or reading a book.

When a person knows they are safe, the brain secretes endorphins, serotonin and dopamine.

“[The combination of circumstances] results in a state of excitement and pleasure, all without danger. I think that’s what makes people addicted,” explains the psychologist.

It’s important, however, to be careful that the experience doesn’t turn sour.

“If your heart beats too fast, if you feel too stressed, the result will be counterproductive. Scaring yourself is not a therapy in and of itself,” cautions Lobbé, who emphasises the benefits of using this approach with a health professional.

“Faced with a phobia, there are different stages before confronting it, you have to expose yourself to your fears, first mentally and then physically. After a while, you get used to it. That’s how you overcome your fears,” she concludes. – AFP Relaxnews

This interview has been translated from French.

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