Shark Attack Psychology

Headed to the beach but scared of getting in the water for fear of sharks?

The dozen or so shark attacks that have plagued East Coast beach goers since the beginning of June are certainly unusual—and they are keeping swimmers out of the water.

Suddenly, the stress-free vacation has turned into an anxiety-filled week. And while no one can ever guarantee your safety at the beach, the neuroscience of stress and anxiety can tell us some interesting things about this summer’s beachgoers, says Dr. Catherine Franssen, a neurobiologist at Longwood University in Farmville, Va., and an expert in stress, fear and anxiety.

The year's beach vacation may be the most memorable.

One of the byproducts of increased levels of anxiety is that stress hormones are elevated in your body. When that happens—in a moderate amount—your memory is enhanced.

"This year’s beach vacation may be the most memorable ever for you and your family," said Franssen. "Instead of the usual relaxing time, you’ll remember this as the time you went to the beach or swam in the ocean when there were shark attacks on the rise. It will be a touchstone experience as far as vacations go, which can make for clearer and longer-lasting memories."

After all, one of the main reasons people take vacations is for the lasting memories.

But what about the fun?

Franssen suggests that might be enhanced as well. "Moderate and transiently increased stress hormones can lead to a maximal dopamine release." Dopamine, the reward or "pleasure" chemical in your brain, is a big part of what makes you feel great. "Studies on everything from tickling to roller coasters to white water rafting show this relationship between a bit of stress and feeling wonderful.  That added element of risk may have your body pumping glucose and oxygen to your brain, helping you feel focused, alert, and alive."

How to manage the shark stress

If you’ve ever grabbed a beach chair and headed for the sand expecting a pristine shore and gentle waves, you’ve probably found the beach littered with debris and jellyfish at least once. For most families, this only has to happen once to start paying attention to the tide.

The same goes for sharks.

"Our fear and anxiety come from a lack of two factors: control and predictability," said Franssen. "Learning about what time of day sharks follow the bait fish in closer to the shore can do a lot to help you control and predict what will happen when you go into the water. In that way, people can manage their anxiety much better and go back to having a relaxing, energizing vacation."

As a bonus, your kids can came back from the beach talking about how much they learned about sharks—a great opportunity to learn about environments and ecosystems.

Take an alternative vacation to reduce stress overall

Alternative vacation to reduce stress

How many of us have gone on a relaxing family vacation full of sun, fun and games, only to return home and be more stressed than ever? That stack of mail full of bills, the suitcases full of dirty laundry, the grass that looks as if it’s grown a foot in a week.

It could be the fault of the vacation.

"We go on vacation with the sole intent of having a stress-free week," said Franssen. "In a lot of ways, we may be setting ourselves up for even more stress when we get home. Sure, that week is fun and relaxing, but what happens when it’s over? You’re making yourself go from zero to a hundred miles an hour. That same thing doesn’t happen for families who go on alternative vacations."

Rapidly gaining in popularity, alternative vacations generally involve an element of risk or stress—climbing a mountain or hiking in the woods, for example. What’s interesting is that people who go on some alternative vacations actually come home less stressed out, even though they are facing the same laundry, grass and bills.

"When we challenge our stress system, we are telling it to respond to what it needs to respond to," said Franssen. "We are helping our brain put everything else in perspective. Spending several days hiking on a trail with your family, sleeping in tents and building fires to cook on makes mowing the grass look like the everyday task it is, rather than a heavy burden."

In fact, wilderness and adventure therapy have been used to successfully treat anxiety disorders in patients. The same principle applies: The more physical stress you subject yourself to, the more your body puts other stress and anxiety in perspective.

"We need to have the stress response; it’s important," said Franssen in the book Blue Mind. "But today, non-life-threatening stressors activate the same biological systems, meaning the same physiological stress response that we use to run away from a lion on the Serengeti is activated when the mortgage bill shows up in the mail."

All of that repeated daily stress contributes to depression and exhaustion, and complicates a wide range of other health issues that many people face. It’s easy enough to get that stress from work and other everyday activities, much less when you add sharks in the mix. Maybe putting that stress in perspective is exactly what the doctor—and your brain—ordered.

Dr. Catherine Franssen

Dr. Catherine Franssen

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