Scary Thoughts

Photograph by Conor MacNeill

With Halloween around the corner, it seems like a good idea to go a little scary at Fuller Life Family Therapy. This week will be full of kids in adorable costumes, colorful candy, brightly lit pumpkins, and haunted houses. Halloween brings an element of fun to all things scary.

Most of us are already fully aware of the things that scare us. Along with ghosts and trick-or-treaters, common fears include heights, spiders, shots, and snakes. We might be surprised at the things that cause fear in others, and they might be surprised at what scares us, even our own thoughts. Our thinking actually has as much power to make us scared as a big spider.

The Threat and Self-Protection System

The brain is beautifully designed to keep us safe as it is constantly on the lookout for anything that may be dangerous.

The function of (the threat-protection system) is to detect and pick up on threats quickly and select a response, e.g., fight, flight, freeze or some other coping efforts, and give us bursts of emotions such as anxiety, anger or disgust. These feelings ripple through our bodies alerting us and urging us to take action against the threat. The system will also be activated if there are threats to people we love, our friends or our group. (Gilbert, 2010)

When danger is evident, the body is immediately flooded with chemicals and hormones that create an instantaneous reaction. In other words, we get that “scary” feeling. Our ability to protect ourselves (or run or freeze) kicks into high gear.

After the threat passes, our bodies are designed to regulate back to “normal” and relax.

Scary Thoughts

Anxiety or fearHowever, our thoughts also influence the threat processes in our brain and can hinder the body’s ability to calm itself back to normal. When we engage in self-critical or self-judgmental thinking, our body actually acts in much the same way as an actual threat.

Self-criticism appears to have a (very similar) effect on our body. When we experience a threatening situation, the flight-or fight response is triggered: the amygdala sends signals that increase blood pressure, adrenaline, and the hormone cortisol, mobilizing the strength and energy needed to confront or avoid a threat. Although this system was designed by evolution to deal with physical attacks, it is activated just as readily by emotional attacks from ourselves and others. (Neff, 2011)

In other words, negative, self-critical, or judgmental thinking stimulates the brain in the very same way as an actual threat. The body is flooded with hormones, and we are flooded with emotions to cope with the danger.

Scary Thoughts

Here are some examples of scary thoughts:

  • What if I fail?
  • No one cares.
  • I am unworthy of love.
  • It is all my fault.
  • I always mess up.
  • No one understands.
  • What if ______________________? (fill in the blank with the worst possible scenario)
  • I have to be perfect to be liked.

Courage and Compassion

Often, when “negative tapes” play in our mind, it is because our mind is working very hard to keep us safe and out of danger. Unfortunately, these thoughts can make us feel more scared, hurt, or disconnected. In order to face our fears, we need a bit of courage to practice self-compassion. Compassionate self-talk has been shown to calm the threat-detection system and allow us to be more understanding with ourselves. When we respond to ourselves with kindness and compassion, we calm our body and create space to respond courageously with our best selves.

  • Courage: being scared and practicing tools that will help us face our fears.
  • Self-Compassion: noticing our painful thoughts and responding to ourselves with care.


Scary thinking is a habit that many of us go to when we are overwhelmed or stressed. The good news is we can learn and practice new habits that can help us calm down and de-stress. Self-compassion is one response that has been shown to calm those scary thoughts and make a real difference on how we feel inside.

For more information on self-compassion, check out our Self-Compassion Resources and also check out the books listed below.

Gilbert, Paul. (2010). Compassion Focused Therapy.

Neff, Kristin. (2011). Self-Compassion: Stop Beating Yourself Up and Leave Insecurity Behind.

Tirch, Dennis. (2012). The Compassionate-Mind Guide to Overcoming Anxiety: Using Compassion-Focused Therapy to Calm Worry, Panic, and Fear.

Contributed by:

Jennifer Christian, M.A., LPC

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