What Is The Psychology Of Fear?

Medically reviewed by Audrey Kelly, LMFT
Updated April 29, 2024by BetterHelp Editorial Team
Content warning: Please be advised, the below article might mention trauma-related topics that could be triggering to the reader. Please see our Get Help Now page for more immediate resources.

The boogeyman hiding underneath the bed. Getting a failing grade on an important test. Accidentally sleeping through your alarm and being late to work. Regardless of what age we are, we all experience a very important universal emotion: fear. Fear is an important part of the human experience and human history, as it is often a survival tool that helps us cautiously approach situations, like uncertainty or a threat, and avoid them should they cause physical or emotional harm. Our brains and natural environment contribute to this ability to feel fear.

But what is fear, when is it more harmful than helpful, and what can understanding the psychology of fear do for us?

Some people use the terms fear and anxiety interchangeably, however they are distinct: in brief, fear is a reaction to the threat of real danger and anxiety is a reaction to emotions. Information presented here will help you understand the similarities and differences of fear and anxiety.

Getty/AnnaStills
Are you struggling with overwhelming feelings of fear?

Psychology: What causes fear?

What's the reasoning behind the things you fear? Why are people afraid of bugs or things that go bump in the night? Why does the idea of giving a group presentation throw you into a realm of anxiety?

Fear occurs when we encounter something that we can't understand or control, or that we think will harm us. We have two types of fears. They are:

  • Natural fears
  • Conditioned fears

Natural fears are the ones that we are born with. If you end up going toe-to-toe with a massive lion that could potentially injure you, that's a real danger and a natural fear. Then, there are the conditioned fears, which are formed when something negative happens in the past, leading to anxiety disorders and causing us to avoid situations due to fear of it happening again. This is a largely irrational response to something because our brain causes us to think that similar circumstances will lead to the same outcome.

For example, let's imagine that you were bitten by a dog as a child, a feared object. Even if the happiest, sweetest dog comes over and says hello with no intent to bite you, you may still react negatively out of certain emotions and fear. Because of one bad experience, you may come to the point where you avoid dogs entirely. If that is the case, you may still be experiencing that underlying fear, such as in post traumatic stress disorder.

We are typically conditioned to fear the things that we are told are negative, like horror movies that scare and evoke a sense of terror. Whether those things are people, places, or specific objects, we have these beliefs and fears ingrained in us over time in our environment. We may not be afraid of the different beliefs of others, but because you may have been raised to believe someone or something is dangerous, you may still fear it even if you've never interacted with those things. To overcome these fears, we need to recognize their behavioral effects and find courage to face them in a safe environment.

Fear as a biochemical and emotional reaction

Fear is a primitive emotion that we humans have, and it's used to tell us about the danger that might be around us. In the past, it was used by ancestors to keep them alive. This is accomplished because of two different types of reactions: a biochemical and an emotional response.

Biochemical reactions are felt physically, such as an increased heart rate, blood pressure, sweating, and higher adrenaline levels, leading to physical reactions. If you're familiar with the fight or flight response, that's essentially what you are feeling as it is your body preparing to either fight or run away. It's an auto-response that's crucial to survival and even in situations that are not dangerous physically, we may still experience this. For example, you may break out in a sweat and feel your heartbeat hasten when you are giving a school presentation or facing a feared situation.

The emotional response is a personalized response to fear, which can contribute to an anxiety disorder. Some people will actively seek out this fear while others avoid it at all costs. There are also softer responses throughout the spectrum, and fear may be felt as a positive or negative experience. This emotional response may be accompanied by negative thoughts that can either amplify the fear or help us cope with it, depending on how we manage our emotions.

Reversal through acclimation

Did you know that if you wanted to reverse a fear, you often must face it? You've probably heard of the adage that facing your fears will help you overcome them, and you may think that it's nonsensical but here is the thing: it's true.

Think of everything that you fear in life. Maybe it's bugs, snakes, or even something as mundane as talking on the phone. Let's say you're thrown into a situation where you must face one of these fears. Say you get a new job, but it involves talking on the phone. You may experience fear while having to do this initially, but then, over time, you may start to realize that the situation doesn't pose any risk. You instead encounter positive experiences each time. This can reduce the fear response, which is how you overcome fears and treat phobias, as well as other fear-induced mental health challenges, such as anxiety disorder and post traumatic stress disorder (“PTSD”). 

What are phobias?

There are fears and then there are phobias. A phobia is an extreme fear reaction that is not based on reality. For example, some people may fear leaving their homes or may fear large buildings. In these situations, the risk of anything happening to you is extremely unlikely but the overwhelming fear response still takes over. Many phobias are irrational, but they can also be rational but blown out of proportion. 

iStock/Kateryna Onyshchuk

Treating phobias and fears

There are two techniques associated with treating phobias and fears:

  • Systematic desensitization
  • Flooding

Each of these is used to reduce the response to and source of the fear. When you are treated using systematic desensitization, you are gradually exposed to situations involving fear over time. Let's imagine that a person has a fear of water. The first therapy session might be about the concept of water. It may involve looking at water or talking about water. Then, a person might visit a pool or a small lake or pond. The next session might include a lake or a larger body of water (and so on). This is a very gradual process that is designed to help the person face their fears over time until they begin to lose the fear. 

Alternatively, there is flooding psychology. Aptly named, flooding involves completely immersing the person in situations where the feared thing is present. However, this method may not be right for everyone. It can be overwhelming and should only be done with a mental health professional’s guidance. That said, it has a high rate of success and may be the right choice for you if carried out properly.

Skilled therapists may use Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing (EMDR) or talk therapy to treat anxiety disorders, stress disorders, and PTSD. Through EMDR patients are guided through back-and-forth movement or sound while recalling the trauma to create shifts in mental state which can promote trauma processing.

How to start conquering your fears

While facing some fears should be a medically supervised experience, there are things that you can do at home if you have a mild fear of something. Here are some helpful tips that may allow you to successfully face and minimize your fears!

  • Locate The Root Of  Your Fear: When fear becomes a habit, we often forget why we began to fear something in the first place. Where does your fear come from? What was the first situation that led to the cycle of fear in your life? For example, if you are pregnant, why do you have fear of birth? Understanding the root of our fear gives us further insight into our reasoning and helps us identify some of the ways that we can begin to face and disarm these fear responses.
  • Challenge Yourself In Small Ways: If you're facing your fear on your own, flooding is not a recommended method to use. You can, however, start to face your fears by incorporating them into your daily life. Each day or each week, you can start to chip away at the fear by taking small steps that force you to face it. Measure your progress as you go, and you'll be surprised by how much you can achieve!
  • Learn Relaxation Techniques: If there's one thing that can help us cope with fear, it's learning how to relax. Take some time out of your day to learn valuable techniques such as meditation, deep breathing, or distraction exercises that you can use when fear begins to become overwhelming.
Getty/AnnaStills
Are you struggling with overwhelming feelings of fear?

Online therapy with BetterHelp

Fear is a natural response, but some fears can turn into phobias over time, or after traumatic experiences. If you’re having trouble overcoming your fear, you may consider enlisting the help of an online BetterHelp counselor. Fears and phobias can be related to almost anything. If you’re having a hard time leaving your house because of the fear of something on the other side, online therapy can allow you to still get care even from the comfort of your home. 

The efficacy of online therapy 

Online therapy can be helpful for treating a variety of psychiatric disorders. One study assessed those with a phobia of flying and found that internet-delivered exposure treatment was successful in reducing symptoms of anxiety and panic. This study showed that phobias can be just as effectively treated through online interventions as those that are face-to-face. 

Counselor reviews

"Genna gets down to your core fears and addresses them in an understanding, empathetic manner. She has helped me through a very difficult time and has given very valuable, practical advice time and time again. What I like about Genna is that she participates and helps you think of different solutions."

"Joseph Sherry has been a wonderful counselor. In the last few months, I've been better than ever. He always encourages me to look at things in a new way, and the tools he has taught me are irreplaceable! I no longer live with chronic fear and anxiety. For me, this is a huge improvement! Without Joseph Sherry, this would not be possible!"

Takeaway

Fear can be an intimidating emotion to experience, but it is natural. Should your fears overwhelm you or become phobias, anxiety stress disorders, or post traumatic stress disorder (“PTSD”), turning to an online therapist for mental health support can be beneficial. Fear does not have to consume your life or hold you back. With the right help and treatment, you can move forward toward living a healthier life.
Explore mental health options online
The information on this page is not intended to be a substitution for diagnosis, treatment, or informed professional advice. You should not take any action or avoid taking any action without consulting with a qualified mental health professional. For more information, please read our terms of use.
Get the support you need from one of our therapistsGet started