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5 Tips to Calm Down if a Horror Movie Triggers Your Anxiety

Even if you're a scary movie lover, you can still find yourself experiencing anxiety symptoms after the end credits roll.

Woman sitting with her legs up on the couch, a mug in her hand.
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We're in the thick of the spooky season, which means pumpkins, candy and, most importantly, horror movies on repeat. Horror movies are a fun way to celebrate all things scary, but sometimes they can get a little too terrifying and cause anxiety symptoms to spike.

While some scary movies may help some with anxiety, that's not the case for everyone. If someone has anxiety sensitivity (the fear of behaviors or stimuli associated with anxiety), they are more likely to react negatively to horror movies. Intrusive thoughts and feelings about being afraid can occur when watching a scary movie.  

Knowing your limits and what may push you over the edge is important. Try these five things if a horror movie triggers your anxiety. 

For more on mental health, learn how to relieve anxiety without medication and the daily things you can do to improve your mental health

Why can scary movies cause anxiety? 

Scary movies don't cause anxiety. However, they can trigger anxiety symptoms, even though you know the threat isn't real. 

It's all about what happens in the body when we're watching scary movies. During horror movies, our brains release adrenaline, which prepares our bodies for stressful situations. Our sympathetic nervous system responds to the threat and throws us into the "fight or flight" response. This results in physiological responses like increased heart rate and muscle contracting. 

Horror movies are designed to throw us into fight or flight mode and elicit emotions like fear and stress. Sometimes it can last even after the movie ends. That can cause panic attacks and interfere with sleep, which amplifies anxiety symptoms. 

Here's what to do if you're feeling anxious while watching a horror movie

No matter if you're a seasoned horror movie watcher or someone who only indulges on Halloween, movies can trigger anxiety. And when it does, you can use these helpful tips to manage it. 

1. Know your limits and set boundaries for yourself

As with anything, you must find and define your limits with horror movies. Everyone's limits will be different. You may have to avoid watching horror movies with too much gore or aliens or home invasions. Or you may only be able to watch one a year. 

Whatever your limits, it's important to set boundaries for your mental health. Take a break if you feel too close to your boundaries. Turn off the movie or take a quick bathroom break. Be mindful of when you should turn off the movie for good and when you can continue. 

Physical anxiety symptoms include heavy breathing, a racing heart, sweating and trembling. If you're experiencing those symptoms beyond typical scary movie jitters, it's important to step away. That jump scare is not worth the negative effects on your health.

2. Replace the movie with something positive 

When it comes to anxiety attacks, distraction is the number one tool in your arsenal. If you realize you're experiencing an anxiety attack or can feel one coming on, you should distract yourself from those thoughts or feelings. Focusing too much on your breathing or your body's response can worsen things. Sometimes, replacing negative feelings with positive ones is the key to feeling better. 

You can do this by watching a comedy or feel-good movie next. Or maybe it's your favorite show -- whatever will distract you and let your body relax. This is my ultimate anxiety-management hack after a horror movie. If a movie hits a little too close and I find myself on edge, I replace those feelings by watching something sure to make me laugh.  

Your distraction may be scrolling through silly TikTok videos or using a coloring book. It can be anything that doesn't make your anxiety symptoms worse. 

Woman sitting on her couch with her laptop on her legs, watching a movie
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3. Use grounding techniques

Grounding techniques are a great coping strategy after your anxiety has peaked. They help you feel present in your body and in control. A good grounding technique is breathing exercises, which relieve stress and anxiety. Breathwork can help you slow down your heart rate and relax

It's important to note that if you're in the thick of an anxiety attack, you shouldn't try and use breathwork just yet. Focusing too heavily on your irregular breathing or heart rate makes symptoms worse. It's best used on mild anxiety symptoms to prevent an anxiety attack or after the attack has passed. 

Common breathwork techniques include 4-7-8 breathing, belly breathing and pursed-lip breathing. 

4. Connect with others

There is safety in numbers. Having a support system is essential for navigating anxiety. Whether hanging out with friends or family or just hugging your pet, being around others is a great way to reduce anxiety symptoms after watching a horror movie. It shatters the illusion of the movie and brings reality back into focus. Even if you can't physically be around other people, you can call or text friends or family to take your mind off the horror movie.

5. Turn on the lights

With all the creepy shadows and potential monsters lurking in the darkness, it can be hard to get some sleep after watching a horror movie, especially if your anxiety is high. Anxiety and sleep have a unique relationship -- it can be hard to fall asleep when you're anxious, but your anxiety symptoms worsen without sleep. 

After the scary movie, turn on the light and eliminate the shadows. This will help you relax enough to go to sleep. You can also sleep with a lamp or nightlight. 

Woman asleep in bed with the bedside lamp on
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Too long; didn't read?

Scary movies are great, but your mental health is more important. The two can coexist; you may just have to be more intentional about what to watch, especially if you have anxiety or anxiety sensitivity. Finding your boundaries for horror movies will ensure you enjoy the experience without triggering your anxiety. 

Want more? We've got more. Learn which foods to eat to boost your happiness and why you should take up journaling for mental health

The information contained in this article is for educational and informational purposes only and is not intended as health or medical advice. Always consult a physician or other qualified health provider regarding any questions you may have about a medical condition or health objectives.