October 08, 2022

As Zena and I took our walks this week we were met with the Halloween yard displays that seem to pop up every year in our neighborhood.  I have mentioned how Zena does not like unexpected encounters on her walks, whether it is a mole or another dog.  One of the displays featured ghosts hanging from the branches of a tree in the front yard of a house.  Zena noticed this display half a block away and began to tense up.  As we got closer, she began to growl and then when we were across from the ghosts Zena started barking and lunging on her leash.  I decided I needed to let her get close so she could figure out what these scary looking objects were.  They had intruded on her walk, and I needed to reduce her fear of the unknown.

When I looked online, I found the science of fear comes from the emotions released that also give us pleasure.  Fear refers to an emotion or feeling induced by perceived danger or threat which produces a physiological change that evokes a behavioral response (e.g., fight, flight, or freeze).  When we face fear, our bodies will react with one of these responses, but our brains are also cognitively lazy.  When we get a “safe” fear (haunted house or horror movie) our brains will quickly evaluate the situation and tell us that we’re free from risk.  Many people seek a “controlled” fear because we know we are safe.  Fear produces a rush of endorphins and dopamine which can result in a pleasure-filled, opioid-like sense of euphoria.  Some people seek thrills to see how much fear they can tolerate.  Fear can also bring people closer together as a shared experience.  Teenage dating advice suggested taking a date to a scary movie because being frightened releases a biochemical flood that can yield a pleasurable outcome, which we often misattribute to the person we are with.  Others are curious about the “dark side” and fear of the unknown is one of the most natural and instinctive fears we have.  “Safe” fear gives us the rush and togetherness without any potential trauma.

When we approached the scary yard display Zena’s fear quickly dissipated.  She gave one of the ghosts hanging from the tree a sniff.  It probably smelled like the person who hung it, and while Zena did not understand why it was there, she did know this was not alive or a threat.  Having satisfied her curiosity, we were able to continue our walk.  I knew we had to retrace our steps back by the yard display to go home and I wondered how Zena would react the second time she saw the scary display.  As we approached her ears did pickup, but then she seemed to recognize the threat she had already investigated.  As we walked by this time Zena ignored the display.  Her fear had been resolved.

THOUGHTS:  When I was growing up, our one TV channel (yes, one) always carried a scary movie on Saturday afternoon.  These were the hokey B Movies produced in the 1950’s that emphasized radiation (A-Bomb), invasion (Red Scare), and extraterrestrials (space race).  I was the only one in the house as I watched one of these movies and it filled me with fear.  The robots would sneak up on people from behind and shoot a gamma ray from the “eye” in their head and disintegrate the hapless humans.  I recall peeking around the door at the TV when the scary parts came.  I was filled with fear, but unable to turn away from the action.  Unlike Zena, I was unable to put this fear behind me and move on.  Even now I can wonder if something might be sneaking up behind me to shoot me with a gamma ray.  When we are confronted by the uncontrolled (albeit unfounded) change in our lives it is easy to be filled with fear.  It is only when we face those fears and see “the man behind the curtain” that we realize we can safely move on.  Act for all.  Change is coming and it starts with you.

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