There's something magical about watching a good horror movie: experiencing emotions like fear, stress and shock while knowing deep down that we're actually perfectly safe can be a cathartic, enriching and satisfying experience. It's an ability to disentangle these contrasting sensations that allows us to enjoy them, but for some of us that's a struggle, which can mean that the scares feel all too real. And for people struggling with conditions like anxiety, that can be problematic.
Sufferers from anxiety are likely to experience a range of reactions to horror films. Watching horrific images can trigger unwanted thoughts and feelings and increased levels of anxiety or panic, and even increase our sensitivity to startle-eliciting stimuli, making those of us who are anxious more likely to respond negatively and misinterpret the sensations as real threats. Our bodies can react as though we're facing an actual threat, making our heart beat faster and flooding our system with adrenalin and hormones like norepinephrine and cortisol, which can cause increased heart rate and muscle tension.
This excited response - which is an essential part of the experience of watching a horror movie - can also make it harder to sleep, and the frightening things we've seen on screen may trigger nightmares which disrupt our REM sleep. Getting a good night’s rest is vitally important for both physical and mental health, and sleep loss or poor quality sleep have been shown to negatively affect how our brains process emotions the following day, with poor sleep even being linked to other mental health issues.
Professionals say that the best way to soften the impact of a scary movie while still enjoying the thrills is first of all to find out how much and what kind of horror is right for you, and avoid the type of horror – whether it's splatter or psychological – that makes you uneasy. It's also important to define your boundaries and to avoid images and sensations that make you uncomfortable. Put your psychological needs first and don't let others pressure you into watching things that you might find distressing or upsetting.
If you're worried that watching horror movies might be problematic, it can be a good idea to watch them with the lights on or during the daytime, to watch then with other people that you trust, and to inform yourself beforehand about the plot so that you know what’s coming, as this will help ease feelings of anxiety. Take a break if you're finding it too much, and be careful not to overdo it - bingeing on movies and TV shows has been shown to disrupt sleep, increase anxiety and induce higher levels of depression.
However, horror films can have positive effects too, by providing a kind of 'exposure therapy' which gives us the opportunity to confront our fears in a safe environment. This can be helpful for those suffering from an anxiety disorder or OCD, for example, and help us develop confidence in our ability to endure distress (though you should ensure you talk to a healthcare professional first about whether this would be suitable for you).
In conclusion, when you sit down to watch a horror film, take note of the way it makes you feel and whether it has an impact on how well you sleep – if you find that it increases your anxiety and makes it difficult for you to get a good night's rest, next time it might be a good idea to consider watching something less frightening instead.