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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, Ph.D., 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.

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