Posted by: Dr. Jennifer Fee | October 25, 2010

Good Scary vs. Bad Scary? It’s a Matter of Interpretation.

Pumpkin carved by Artist Anthony Lewis

My son will avoid bees but not the scene in The Sorcerer’s  Stone where Voldemort takes up residence in the back of one of Harry Potter’s teacher’s heads (which creeps me out a bit). My daughter loves the giant Ferris Wheel but won’t step outside of the house alone after dark (I’ll take the dark over the Ferris Wheel any time!).  The Harry

Scary Pumpkin Carved by Artist Anthony Lewis

Potter movie is a bit scary to my son as the Ferris Wheel is to my daughter, but they enjoy that kind of “scary.”   For them, some kinds of scary are “fun,” whereas other kinds are upsetting.

It’s the same with adults.  I’ve had numerous clients who love roller coasters but are afraid of the symptoms associated with anxiety –rapid heartbeat, shaky limbs, dizziness, etc.  When I ask them to describe what happens in their bodies when they ride a roller coaster, they tell me the same bodily sensations as anxiety:  “my heart beats faster as the roller coaster reaches the top of the first drop,” “my muscles tense up ,” and “I feel a little dizzy and woozy afterwards.”  However these same people who love rollercoasters will describe the identical physical sensations of panic attacks and high anxiety to be “horrible,” “terrifying,” and “intolerable.”

The difference?  One really important and critical difference is the interpretation of the body sensations.  If you love rollercoasters and ascribe the physical sensation associated with riding them as “fun,” the feelings won’t be intolerable.  Also, there’s an obvious cause to the symptoms, people who ride roller coasters do so on purpose, whereas a lot of panic attacks appear to come “out of the blue.”

Maybe the roller coaster example doesn’t work for you.  Do you like movies where there is some suspense and tension?  If so, think about (or pay attention) to what happens in your body the next time you’re watching a suspensful movie.  How is it similar to feeling anxious?  Why is not as upsetting/scary as being anxious? 

There are reasons other than interpretation of bodily symptoms that contribute to how we might describe a situation.  I’ll discuss those in future posts.  Meanwhile, pay attention to what happens in your body in various situations and the meaning you ascribe to those feelings.  Often similar feelings are given vastly different interpretations.

Thanks for reading!  –Dr. Jennifer Fee



  1. Very interesting. Never made that connection before. Good analogy.

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