THE BLOG
11/05/2014 05:29 pm ET Updated Jan 05, 2015

What You Accomplished This Halloween (And Didn't Even Realize)

Ghislain & Marie David de Lossy via Getty Images

You got more done this Halloween than you realize -- and we don't just mean killing it in your costume. You took the opportunity to do what the holiday allows you safely to do: Stare down the things that scare you. And doing that, on purpose, is what helps you neutralize their power. Think back to a childhood Halloween costume that seemed oh-so-scary on the night of October 31. Come the next morning, you saw that same costume lying limply on its hanger, exposed for the hunk of polyester and vinyl that is was.

As a species, we've ritually, regularly, and uniquely confronted fear for a long time. We don't, for example, take one night a year, as a culture, to embrace embarrassment or guilt. In fact, Americans shell out half a billion dollars every year for scary movies, just to cringe behind a bucket of popcorn and scream at the screen. And this attraction to being scared makes fear unique among the so-called negative emotions.

As far back as eighth-century Europe, communities set aside a day, All Soul's Day, when the dead would return to visit the living. It was the one day of the year when people could face their greatest anxieties and fears (in this case, fear of death) with courage, and on their own terms. By the 10th-century people took the tradition one step further, dressing up in scary masks and costumes to mock their own anxieties and display just how very brave they were.

Why Fear Is So Compelling

First, fear is a biochemical roller-coaster ride. When you perceive a threat, adrenaline pumps through your bloodstream to get your body ready to fight, freeze, or flee. Your heart beats faster to get blood to the major muscles of the arms, legs, and torso. Blood drains from your periphery to engorge the core, and so you get tingling fingers and chilly toes. You tense your muscles to get them ready to run away - hence the sore back, neck, and shoulders at the end of a stressful day. This is the work of our sympathetic nervous systems (SNS), a collection of organs and glands integral to fight-or-flight.

The SNS, however, is just one side of the teeter-totter of your physical stress response. On the other side is the parasympathetic nervous system (PNS), which pushes relaxing beta-endorphins to the same organs and glands when the SNS shuts off, say, immediately after a scare. Physiologically, you love a good fright because it feels so, so good when it stops. (Read more on activating your PNS to cope with stress.)

But we think there's more to it than that.

Fear has the potential to paralyze us the most, and so, as the resilient beings we are, we have these traditions and customs that test our fears and push against them.

One theory is that fear is the primal negative emotion. It drives all of the other significant negative emotions -- anger, frustration, sadness, guilt, embarrassment, and shame -- and so it is the biggest player in how you live your life. Fear (and its close cousin, anxiety) arises when you look to the future and imagine a negative outcome that scares you -- being embarrassed in front of your coworkers about your Halloween costume, for example, or guilty because you didn't follow through on a family commitment. Or you might feel frustration, and underneath that emotion is the fear that you won't be able to do what needs to get done. Let the fears rule and you're less likely to try the grown-up version of trick-or-treating: taking a risk, trying a new opportunity, testing your strengths. Living a full life.

Neutralize Your Fear

You don't need to relegate facing fear to one ritualized day a year that involves a lot of candy! Make a habit throughout the year of noting down your greatest fears and challenging them, costumed or not. Here are a few of our trusted strategies for neutralizing fear.

  • Use your imagination to disrupt the fear. Ever pictured a zombie wearing a top hat? Or imagined your intimidating neighbor speaking in a falsetto? You get the picture.
  • Reach out for support. When a fear hits you, it can cause you become more internally than externally focused. Resist that spiral. Ask for loving, positive energy and send some into the world.
  • Challenge fear with questions. Fear often swells with half-truths and exaggerations. Puncture and deflate it with the facts.

When Halloween comes around again, you'll be ready to take a deep dive into the scariest costume you can imagine -- and have fun doing it. A ghost? A bat? A shark attack victim with your head sticking out of a full-body shark suit? Bring it on!

Learn more useful information about stress and your health! Pre-order our forthcoming book, meQuilibrium: 14 Days to Cooler, Calmer, and Happier, co-authored by meQuilibrium CEO Jan Bruce, Andrew Shatté, Ph.D., Chief Science Officer, and Adam Perlman, M.D., Chief Medical Officer.