It’s that time of year again: horror movie season! While costumes, Jack O’Lanterns and tricks or treats are fine for most people, there seem to be strong feelings- love them or hate them- about haunted houses and scary movies. Fear causes physical reactions such as muscle tension, increased heart rate and eye movement, sweating, elevated cortisol levels, and a rush of both dopamine and adrenaline. These changes are adaptive and normal reactions to perceived threats as they enable us to move quickly and efficiently away from any danger. Of course, even though we know it’s just a fictional depiction we are watching onscreen, the physiological reactions happen just as though we are experiencing the horror in real life. Why do some people seek out these thrills while others avoid them at all cost? I have read several articles about people’s reactions to horror films. Some suggest that your response is partly genetic. Both dopamine and adrenaline may cause sensations of pleasure in some, but on the other hand, viewing scary images may even reignite PTSD or traumatic memories in others. Some articles caution that the fright experience may make you susceptible to a heart attack or stroke, while others suggest that if you watch enough of these flicks, you will become desensitized and thereby lower your overall anxiety levels! Pay attention to your reaction as you watch your next scary film, and notice how your body reacts. Do you jump out of your seat? Do you scream when something unexpected happens? Do you feel very tense physically? Can you sleep well afterwards? Was it overall a good or fun experience for you, or did you feel disturbed by it?
In Chinese medicine, fear and fright are emotions that are considered normal, but if left unchecked and experienced in a chronic pattern, may take a very big toll on health, namely on the Kidneys. (Fright initially affects the heart, but chronic fright transfers on to the kidneys.) The Kidney qi (pronounced “chee,” or energy) relates to the bones, teeth, ears, brain, the reproductive organs, the lower body (low back, knees, feet…), and the urinary and bladder system, as well as respiration (by receiving the qi from the lungs). In ancient texts, the Kidneys are referred to as the “Mother of all organs,” which indicates their importance for health and vitality. They hold a reserve of the primordial qi or congenital essence inherited from parents. The Kidneys are also associated with willpower. Depleted Kidneys might cause poor development, disease or premature aging. Fear causes the Kidney qi to sink when it normally ascends towards the other internal organs. Fright interrupts the flow of qi. The effect of fear may manifest as a loss of bladder control, demonstrating the downward movement of Kidney qi. (On a more complex level, fear may manifest within the yin or yang aspects of the kidneys or even be attached to the other organs.) Now when you watch a horror movie, remember that the survivor at the end always has very strong will (and therefore Kidney qi) and take pity on poor, feeble, frightened Ichabod Crane who was never heard from again after being chased by the Headless Horseman- he was probably scared to death. Happy Halloween!