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Special Effects on the Body

Movies are often viewed as the perfect way to relax: You sit in a comfy seat, eat some popcorn and tune out for two hours.But there’s a lot more to cinema than simply entertainment. Movies affect your brain and body in ways you may not be able to detect.

“Because many films transmit ideas through emotion rather than intellect, they can neutralize the instinct to suppress feelings and trigger emotional release,” said Birgit Wolz, a psychologist focusing on movies as therapy, and author of “E-motion Picture Magic.” “By eliciting emotions, watching movies can open doors that otherwise might stay closed.”

Laughter can offer you distance from your problems and enhance your sense of well-being, Wolz said. In fact, numerous studies have shown that laughter can help your immune system and decrease stress hormones, which constrict blood vessels and suppress hormone activity.

A study by researchers at the University of Maryland found that laughing while watching a comedic film causes your blood vessels to dilate by 22 percent. That’s because when you laugh, the tissues forming the lining of your blood vessels expand and make room for an increase in blood flow. Translation: When you laugh at the movies, you’re actually lowering your blood pressure to the same extent that you’d lower it when you do physical exercise, said Dr. Michael Miller, director of the University of Maryland’s Center for Preventive Cardiology.

To get the biggest heart-healthy benefit from watching comedies, you should be watching movies that make you do a real belly laugh for at least 15 minutes, Miller said.

Know before you go: If you’re worried about something and can’t come to a good resolution, it’s time to see a comedy. “Laughter while watching comedies can relieve anxiety, as well as reduce aggression and fear,” Wolz said. “Often, clients are able to approach a solution to a problem they were worried about with less emotional involvement and a fresh and creative perspective after watching a humorous movie.”

The people who are fascinated by horror movies tend to be the same people who love to sky-dive, go rock climbing and try extreme skiing adventures.

“Riding at the edge of death is, somehow, strangely enough, what makes them feel most alive,” Wolz said. And for many moviegoers, the horror genre allows them the opportunity to experience events and people who otherwise wouldn’t enter their lives.

Horror films also affect your body physiologically, said Dr. George Bakris, who specializes in hypertensive diseases.

“Very intense movies do increase heart rate, and if you have coronary heart disease, (they) can increase chest pain and blood pressure,” Bakris said.

Know before you go: Watching a horror movie can cause a spike in adrenaline and cortisol levels. That can trigger memories of traumatic events you have experienced, said Bruce McEwen, professor in the neuroendocrinology laboratory at The Rockefeller University in New York, and past president of the Society for Neuroscience. So if you have a bad memory that you don’t want to subconsciously rehash, it would be best to avoid this genre until you’re ready.

If you have a heart condition, and you feel pain or think you’re having coronary problems, you should leave the movie early, Bakris said. Everyone else’s heart should be able to regulate, so you don’t have to worry if you feel your pulse beating faster than normal during the intense moments.

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