Since a horror movie is, after all, just a movie, it can be tempting to dismiss any response at all that you might feel after watching one. “But even though we know the danger in movies is not real, the perception of danger is real, whether it’s caused by a loud noise or something jumping into the frame,” says neurocinematics researcher Michael Grabowski, PhD, chair of the Department of Communication at Manhattan College, and editor of the textbook Neuroscience and Media: New Understandings and Representations.
“The release of adrenaline involves physiological changes like a racing heart and muscle tension, as well as mental changes, such as negative thoughts and catastrophic thinking.” —psychologist Jonathan S. Abramowitz, PhD
When it comes to the neurological fear response, the brain can’t tell the difference between a real and perceived threat, says psychologist Jonathan S. Abramowitz, PhD, professor of psychology and neuroscience at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. As a result, the sympathetic nervous system (aka the fight-or-flight response) can be activated all the same in the case of a scary movie as it might in a real-life scary scenario. “The release of adrenaline involves physiological changes like a racing heart and muscle tension, as well as mental changes, such as negative thoughts and catastrophic thinking,” says Dr. Abramowitz.
Why watching a scary movie can make falling asleep more challenging—especially if you watch it at night
Because that physical and mental fear response is built to protect us from harm, it also keeps us on high alert for danger, says Dr. Abramowitz. And even after the movie wraps up and the perceived threat is essentially gone, we can stay in that alert (aka not at all sleepy) state for a while due to evolutionary instincts: Danger has a habit of re-appearing in the wild, and the fear response is designed to keep us on our toes in case that happens, Dr. Abramowitz adds.
The closer to your bedtime you watch a scary movie, then, the more likely those effects are to interfere with your sleep, as your body needs some time to break down the released adrenaline and calm that response. Not to mention, once you start struggling with falling asleep, that can create a negative feedback loop, says Dr. Grabowski: “Worrying about your inability to sleep just makes it even harder to relax.”
In the same vein, ruminating on what you’ve just watched can make it all the more likely that images and emotions from the movie will permeate your dreams, says dream analyst Lauri Loewenberg. And if you’re concerned about that happening, those worries alone can have a similar keep-you-awake effect.
How to fall asleep more easily after watching a scary movie
Simply knowing that the body’s natural fear response will happen no matter how unlikely or impossible the events of the movie may be can help re-contextualize your fears. “The best thing you can do is chalk up your nerves as an entirely normal response to seeing threatening stimuli on-screen,” says Dr. Abramowitz. “When we try to fight back against this normal, safe experience, it can actually make things worse by making us more preoccupied.”
It’s also worth embracing that post-scary-movie feeling as a positive thing—because it actually can be, according to sociologist and fear expert Margee Kerr, PhD. The fight-or-flight response also triggers the release of feel-good hormones dopamine and serotonin, which can boost your mood after the nerves subside, Kerr previously told Well+Good. In fact, that’s the reason most people watch horror flicks to begin with, says Dr. Abramowitz: People want to feel the rush of that aroused, excited state.
That said, if anxiety or fear seems to linger long after the scary movie is over, it can help to talk it out with a friend or loved one. Being able to acknowledge your fears and laugh with someone about them creates space for mood-lifting bonding, and reinforces the idea that the fears themselves were false alarms, says Dr. Grabowski. This other person can also help you find tangible evidence that the events of the movie are unlikely to happen to you in real life, which is another behavioral strategy that can help diminish the swirl of anxious thoughts.
If it’s the potential for a movie-related nightmare that’s keeping you awake, you might consider this helpful intel from Loewenberg: Most dreams about events we’ve experienced that day (and that don’t hold particular significance for our lives) happen earlier in the night, making us more likely to forget them anyway. “The first dream, which occurs about 90 minutes into sleep, is essentially clearing the house to make way for the deeper, more meaningful dreams that occur closer to when you wake up in the morning,” she says.
And if the scary movie-inspired dream does happen right before you wake up? There’s still no reason to fret, says Loewenberg. That just means that something in the movie touched on an area of your life that may feel similarly threatening or challenging at the moment. And the dream is simply a prompt pushing you toward resolution of that real-life issue, rather than anything to fear in its own right, says Loewenberg.
Once you’re in that mindset, it also can’t hurt to engage in a relaxing pre-bed ritual: Set your phone out of reach, sip a slumber-inducing tea, and do anything that soothes your soul, whether that’s a few minutes of meditation or reading, or listening to calming music. In any case, it’ll help distract you from the terror-inducing scenes you’ve just witnessed while also preparing you for a restful night’s sleep. Win, win.
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