How Horror Films Helped Me with My Anxiety

I have found that scary movies – coupled, of course, with traditional mental health support like medication and counseling – have helped counteract my anxiety.   

But scary movies haven’t always helped my anxiety. In fact, as a kid – before I was diagnosed with generalized anxiety and panic disorder – it did quite the opposite.  

I remember watching my first real scary movie – “Sixth Sense” – when I was 11 or 12 years old, and, for an entire year later, I was terrified to get up in the middle of the night, convinced I would see a “dead person” lurking in the darkness.  

As a kid, the biggest trigger for my panic attacks was the topic of death – and, of course, with a scary movie, you’re pretty much guaranteed that some character will die. So, I swore off all scary movies for at least a decade after that. 

It wasn’t until I finally received mental health treatment that I stopped being constantly terrified that my loved ones or I would die. I still live with anxiety, of course – but panic attacks went from occurring weekly to about once a month or less.  

So, when I was 25 and a friend suggested watching a scary movie, I took a deep breath and decided to try again. And I found, as an adult, that not only did I enjoy the scary movie, but it also did something I never thought was possible – it actually made me feel less anxious instead of more.  

So, how is it that movies designed to make you feel anxious can actually help people with anxiety disorder?  

For me, I realized, if I watched these movies when I was feeling particularly anxious, I would forget about all the real-life things that were making me feel that way. When I was busy clutching onto my seat, waiting for the masked killer to jump out, I stopped fixating on my own self-consciousness or the guy I liked who didn’t text me back or worrying if I said something stupid in a meeting.  

Research shows that there are also scientific reasons why scary movies can help people like me.  

Psychology Today reports that adrenaline created by watching scary movies “sends a flood of oxygen-rich red blood cells through your body, boosts your immune system, and signals your brain to start releasing painkilling dopamine and endorphins.” 

When you have anxiety disorder, you may have an abnormal fear response – because, for us, our brains react to normal, everyday events as if they were a major threat to us. But, when watching scary movies, for some people it can provide a release for this pent-up stress within a safe space. 

In an interview with Vice Magazine, Mathias Clasen, PhD, a Danish scholar of horror fiction, said, “Exposure to horror films can be gratifying when the negative emotions caused by the film are manageable. We know it’s not real. … The genre allows us to voluntarily — and under controlled circumstances — get experience with negative emotion.” 

There are many different treatments for anxiety. Medication. Exercise. Being outdoors. And even scary movies. There is no wrong way to cope. Just find the therapy works for you. 

Opinions expressed in this blog belong solely to the author and do not necessarily reflect the opinions or beliefs of Blue Cross Blue Shield of Michigan or its subsidiaries and affiliates. 

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Photo credit: Courtesy of Monica Drake 

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