Man watches scary movie on his couch.

Researchers Are Using Horror Films to Study Anxiety

One surprising trend among people who suffer from a generalized anxiety disorder is that they tend to love horror films. This might seem counterintuitive. If you already were suffering from anxiety, why would you want to watch a cinematic work where the primary purpose was to evoke anxiety and fear out of you. However, as usual, the truth is a little bit more nuanced. And, as a matter of fact, horror films might even help in the processing of anxiety, or at least in our understanding of how anxiety works. One recent study has looked into this very phenomenon…

New study

The University of California, Irvine has conducted a recent study that explores the connection between horror films and how anxiety is processed in the brain. The key purpose of this study was to see how future treatments could better serve individuals who struggled with mental health problems. The study was conducted by having people watch terrifying scenes from horror films and measuring brain activity (particularly with the amygdala and hippocampus, which are the parts of the brain that handle emotion and memory).

Providing a reference point for anxiety

This study found that individuals who struggled with anxiety are frequently put into a sort of hyper mental state, or “fight or flight” mode. Horror films evoke these same types of emotions, but may actually do so in a positive way, for some people. This is because these emotions are evoked in a kind of controlled situation, since the individuals knows that what they are seeing is fake. These situations also provide a sort of reference point for anxiety. When you see the extreme situations in these horror films, it levels out the things that your mind was overreacting to, before.

This is both surprising, and yet makes a strange type of sense. It is quite similar to dealing with feelings of sadness or tragedy. Simply burying these feelings will not actually contribute to more stable mental health. Many times, it requires tackling feelings head on and actually addressing them. Horror movies provide a way to process feelings of fear, anxiety, and adrenaline in a setting and situation that is safe. It also gives a person a rare feeling of perspective about these feelings, since they can witness the cause-effect relationship that is going on as they watch these scenes.

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