A trapeze study from Glasgow shows why fear can be good for us

In some cases, participants subsequently managed to overcome longstanding phobias and reported feeling more positive and better able to cope with other stressful events, such as exams.

The research is further evidence that the “good stress” that comes from doing things that scare us can increase well-being, while lack of exposure to risk in modern life can be psychologically damaging – leading to problems with perfectionism and leads to fear of failure.

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The research was conducted by University of Glasgow psychologist Dr. Chiara Horlin, who will present the results today at the Glasgow Science Festival.

dr Horlin, whose husband is a circus performer, was inspired when he came across an earlier study by two Dutch psychologists looking at how riding a roller coaster affects the lung function of people with asthma.

She said: “These people they put on roller coasters had breathing problems, so they measured their lung function before and after.”

“Although the screaming, excitement and physical exertion on the roller coaster actually affected their lung function, they did felt They could breathe better, which struck me as really odd.

“The fun and positive emotional experience of the roller coaster ride changed her perspective.”

HeraldScotland: Roller coaster riders with asthma said they experienced less shortness of breath despite actually having impaired lung functionAlthough lung function was actually impaired, roller coaster riders with asthma reported experiencing less shortness of breath (Image: Newsquest)

The phenomenon is known as eustress – a beneficial form of stress associated with feelings of happiness, euphoria and success.

Unlike stress – the negative form that causes the body to release the stress hormone cortisol – eustress has been associated with positive physical and emotional outcomes.

dr Horlin decided to test whether exposing volunteers to other hair-raising activities could be a “missing link” in addressing mental health problems in young people.

With the help of Community Circus Paisley, she set out to recruit around 100 students willing to learn the flying trapeze.

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“There are a lot of things in the circus that are scary, but the flying trapeze is one of the bigger things,” she said.

“You’re on an eight meter [26ft] high platform, and you have to swing into space with nothing but a net beneath you. That’s pretty intimidating.

The participants were in their 20s or 30s, but none had tried anything like this before.

Over the course of around eight months, from September 2019 to March 2020, they were divided into groups of ten and subjected to a series of increasingly demanding exercises.

HeraldScotland: Around 100 students from the University of Glasgow took part in the study, with positive resultsAround 100 students from the University of Glasgow took part in the study with positive results (Image: Herald&Times)

For the first step, they swung themselves out on a safety line before being told to “let go” — a “sort of confidence exercise.”

Next they had to swing out again, but this time tucking their legs over the bar so that they ended up standing on their heads.

On the final lap, they had to let go of the bar so they could be caught in the air by a professional trapeze artist.

to dr To Horlin’s surprise, nearly all of the volunteers completed all three steps.

She said: “It was a very stressful experience for many of them – they expressed great nervousness, fear and concern before doing it. After that, the balance shifted between exhilaration and excitement.”

“But the most interesting thing was the long-term benefits. A week later we did a follow-up to see how sustainable the results were.”

“People were taking photos and videos with their phones, and we found that sharing things on social media and with their families helped amplify many of these positive effects.”

“They were proud, and that was reinforced by a lot of other people saying how ‘amazing’ it was.”

“We’ve had people say things like, ‘I had a stressful exam coming up, but overall it’s a lot less stressful than a flying trapeze.'”

“They said, ‘If I can handle this, I can handle anything.’ It really seemed to spark a growing sense of resilience about what they could accomplish.

“We had a few other people who volunteered to say they had pretty extreme phobias.

“One had a phobia of public transport and got on a bus for the first time the day after the study was completed.”

HeraldScotland: Study volunteers gradually increased the difficulty of the jumpsThe study volunteers gradually increased the difficulty of the jumps (Image: Newsquest)

Recently dr. Horlin repeated the experiment with youth, ages 10 to 17, who attended weekly workshops with the Paisley Community Circus to learn a variety of skills, including juggling, aerial rope and tightrope walking.

At the end of the course, in March of this year, her “stressor” was performing on a show for friends and family.

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dr Horlin said lack of exposure – something humans have been prepared for by evolution – may leave a gap in young people’s development.

“We all get more risk averse as we age, but when we talk about things like ‘helicopter parenting’ and risk aversion, I think that’s increased,” she said.

“There’s definitely a call for supportive and really controlled risk-taking behaviors, to give people the opportunity to experience stress positively, but also to fail in a supportive environment and not be as careful about it.”

“I think it can help reduce anxiety and perfectionism.”

Part of the Glasgow Science Festival, Flying through Fear takes place on June 10th at Community Circus Paisley

Grace Reader

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