You know that feeling seconds before you're about to attempt something completely nerve-wracking — when your heart is beating so rapidly you fear it might just fall right out of your chest?
Yeah, there's a reason for that, and with a recent trip to Knott's Scary Farm (one of the absolute scariest Halloween attractions in all of America), I got to the bottom of it.
Long story short — no, it's not just you. And yes, you're going to survive even if you're on the fast track to reaching your maximum heart rate.
I decided to get some firsthand experience in the matter, by putting on a helmet, strapping on a heart monitor and gearing up to attempt Shadow Lands, a new maze featured at the Southern California amusement park.
This interactive maze forces you to fight off demon samurais in pitch black — the ultimate scare for a scaredy-cat like me!
Knott's Berry Farm got into the Halloween spirit early, launching the first recorded Halloween theme park event in 1973.
Whether you're a thrill-seeker or not (like me), when in a state of fear, the body releases a hormone known as adrenaline, which can trigger a fluctuating heart rate, rising blood pressure and dilated eyes.
Anne Andrews, a neuroscientist at UCLA, says this is the body's way of responding to danger, even though you're aware there's no real bodily threat.
"You are prepared to jump into action without even thinking about it. It’s a reflex," Andrews told TODAY.
While she says fear under safe conditions is probably not harmful, it's a very different case for war soldiers or those in high-stress chronic jobs who are constantly accessing the fight-or-flight response.
"Putting yourself under conditions of constant stress or threat ... can be really detrimental to both physical health and mental health," she said.
And it's hard to separate feelings and rational thoughts, especially in a fearful situation.
"Your body is exquisitely designed to detect things that can be potentially dangerous," said Andrews. "You do have to trust your gut when you feel that sensation of fear coming over you, but of course, you also have to evaluate where it’s coming from."
Identifying and paying attention to those sensations are critical in deciding how your body will respond, according to Andrews.
"There are things that can maybe evoke a fearful response in us that then we evaluate and say, 'Oh no, that’s not something that I actually need to be afraid of,'" she said.
But fear isn't to be confused with anxiety. And I likely experienced both while walking through the maze.
"Fear is this innate, hardwired response to threat, or the thought of a real threat. But with anxiety, there’s no threat present," said Andrews. "It’s our body’s response to perceived threat, or to something that’s going to be uncomfortable."
On average, your resting heart rate should be between 60-100 beats per minute. But in the maze, mine was way above normal: 160 bpm!
At 160 bpm, my heart rate was close to maxing out...yikes! And once I finished the maze, that wasn't the end of it; my body needed the next hour to calm down.
While it may not take everyone an hour for their heart rate to stabilize, it's normal for there to be a period of fluctuation.
"It can take minutes or hours. And for folks that have experienced a really fearful event (like people who suffer from PTSD), their body and mind/brain never really recovers," said Andrews.
However,she warns that people with heart problems, coronary artery disease or congestive heart failure should be conscious about avoiding such an increase in heart rate.
"Considering you weren't sprinting, this elevation in heart rate was due to psychological stimulation, i.e., being afraid," she said. "It's pretty amazing that our bodies can prepare us (let's say, to run) when we're not even doing it yet."
In all honesty, I might as well have been running...because it sure felt like I was!