The Science Behind Being Scared

Long term fear is not healthy. However, short experiences in a controlled environment can have a lot of benefits. This isn’t true for everyone. There are some people who just don’t like roller coasters, scary movies, haunted houses or other heart-thumping activities. The fear outweighs the fun for some and that’s totally ok. However, the vast majority of people enjoy the little bursts of brain chemicals released when doing something a little bit scary. Let's break down the science behind being scared so you can evaluate whether or not you are ready to make a tandem skydive.

Adrenaline Molecule
Human Brain

Autonomic Nervous System- To get to the rewarding brain chemicals, you first have to experience some of the not-so-great ones. In a stressful situation, the autonomic nervous system causes physiological changes like increased rate of breathing, flushed or pale skin, tense muscles, dilated pupils, dry mouth and butterflies in the stomach.

Epinephrine- The autonomic nervous system also triggers the release of epinephrine, aka adrenaline. Epinephrine speeds up the heart rate, constricts peripheral blood vessels, and diverts blood from the core to the muscles needed for movement. It also tightens the muscles at the base of each hair follicle, causing hairs to stand on end.

Amygdala - The amygdala stimulates the hypothalamus, which then stimulates the pituitary gland to release adrenocorticotropic hormone (ACTH) into the blood. ACTH release causes the secretion of cortisol, often called the “stress hormone.” This raises blood pressure and increases blood glucose levels to keep the body ready for action.

Not much about this sounds like fun yet, right? So, where’s the benefit?

The good brain chemicals come after the epinephrine rush. Once your prefrontal cortex perceives the danger is over (usually once the parachute opens or once you touch down on terra firma) a biochemical rush of neurotransmitters starts to make you feel INCREDIBLE.

tandem student smiles during a skydive
Tandem Student Smiling with Instructor

Oxytocin - The love hormone. There’s a social aspect to skydiving almost everyone experiences. Your instructor is suddenly your real-life hero. Your skydiving friends are now your comrades. The experience is incredibly bonding and this is because of oxytocin. Oxytocin influences social behavior and is involved in the creation of group memories and bonding. PSA: If you land from your skydive feeling like you’re suddenly in love with your instructor, tell your brain to shut up. It’s just the oxytocin talking. 😉

Amygdala/Dopamine – The amygdala comes into play again. It not only controls fear response but is involved in pleasure and reward. Dopamine signaling takes place in the amygdala and is the neurotransmitter responsible for pleasure.

Endorphins – These are the feel-good chemicals released after exercise which often cause a feeling of euphoria. They are sometimes referred to as natural opioids. You get a whole rush of these after skydiving which contributes to a post-fear high.

Serotonin – Serotonin regulates mood and a lack of serotonin is associated with depression. A boost in levels of this chemical messenger can make you feel really good and even proud.

Brain Chemicals



  • Immunity - Studies have also shown fear can also boost the immune system. White blood cells are responsible for immunity. Researchers have found increased white blood cell counts in test subjects who watched a scary movie as compared to a control group who were sitting in a quiet room. 
  • Weight Loss – Obviously, skydiving is impractical as a weight loss program for a lot of reasons. However, feeling fear does burn more calories as your heart rate goes up and you get a surge of adrenaline. Your metabolism goes into overdrive burning sugar and fat. 

Mental & Emotional – We don’t have the science to back this up but we do have years of customer feedback and personal experience to draw on.

  • Feelings of empowerment- The importance of this cannot be understated. Feeling powerful in your own life can be completely life changing. Conquering something you are afraid of forces you to reevaluate what you previously thought you were capable of. The boost in self-esteem that comes from personal empowerment can lead you to quit a bad relationship, change to a more fulfilling career and vigorously pursue new and satisfying passions. If you are brave enough to jump out of an airplane, you are brave enough to step out of your cubicle and go after the life you really want. We have heard countless stories over the years of how skydiving has changed lives in all these ways and more.
  • Connection with your more primal self- We are a long way from a survival-driven existence. We’re consumer-driven, comfort-driven and entertainment-driven. Rarely do our ancestral instincts for survival get tickled. Skydiving gives some rare insight as to how we respond and function when faced with perceived threats.
  • Being present in the moment – So many people have problems feeling present in their own lives. We are constantly so distracted by our own internal commentary, anxieties, and insecurities, we fail to be in-the-moment. Skydiving effectively blocks out EVERYTHING except the moment you are in. It’s impossible to stress about work, relationships, financial problems or anything else when you’re jumping out of an airplane. 
  • Courage to do more scary things - Believe it or not, courage and how you function when afraid is a muscle you can grow. If you get outside of your comfort zone more often, you’ll find that fear is the birthplace of change. It’s good to challenge yourself. As Aristotle once said, “An individual develops courage by doing courageous things.” 
  • Perspective – Getting close to our perceived death can help give us perspective about what’s really important in life. Most people land from their jump feeling a powerful appreciation for friends, family and experiences that them feel more fulfilled in life.

At this point, you might be thinking, “This is all great, but I’m still scared to go skydiving.” That’s ok. You’re supposed to be scared. The fear is what makes skydiving great. It’s kind of the whole point.

“Avoiding danger is no safer in the long run than outright exposure. The fearful are caught as often as the bold.” — Helen Keller

Tandem Students pointing at the sky


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