What Is The Psychology Of Fear?
Updated December 19, 2018
Reviewer Audrey Kelly, LMFT
One of the most common natural human reactions is fear. Have you ever spoken in front of a group of people, only to feel like you're about to clam up? Or maybe you want to tell the person you like your feelings, but you feel the heart palpitations start to overwhelm you? Fear is something we all have experienced in our lives, and it makes up a major part of our lives. There is a psychology behind it though, and what causes fear. Here, we will dive into this, and talk about what is the psychology of fear, and what is truly behind this.
- Fear As A Biochemical And Emotional Reaction
This is a primitive emotion that we humans have, and it's used to tell us about the danger that is around, and in the past, it was used by ancestors to keep them alive. It has two different types of reactions though; a biochemical, and an emotional response.
Biochemical is something you feel physically, such as the increased heart rate, the sweats, and higher adrenaline levels. If you're familiar with the fight or flight response, that's essentially what's going on here, and it's the body preparing to either fight or to run away. It's an auto-response that's crucial to survival, and even in not physically dangerous situations, we may feel this, such as maybe breaking out into a sweat before you give a huge presentation.
Then there is the emotional response, which is a personalized response to fear. Some people face this head-on, and we call those people adrenaline junkies. Other ones avoid the situations at all costs, and fear can be seen as positive or negative.
- Psychology: What Causes Fear?
So what's the reasoning behind this? 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? Well, it's something that essentially is something that we can't understand, control, or thinks it will harm us.
We have two types of fears, and they are as follows:
- Natural fears
- Conditioned fears
The natural ones are the ones that we are born with. If you end up going toe-to-toe with a lion, that's big and strong and could eat you; chances are that's a natural fear. Then there are the conditioned fears, which are formed when something negative happens in the past, and then we become fearful of it happening once again. Why does this happen? Well, it's an irrational response to something because our brain kind of deludes us into thinking that the similar circumstances will lead to the same outcome.
For example, let's take the one time you got bitten by a dog maybe as a child. Even if the happiest, fluffiest dog comes over and says hello, with no intent to bite you, you still may react. Because of one bad experience, you avoid all.
We are typically conditioned to fear what we are told are negative. That's why people are prejudiced against other people, and it's something that we tend to bring about in ourselves. 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're going to fear it even if you've never interacted with said people.
Reversal Through Acclimation
Did you know though, that if you wanted to reverse a fear, you just have to face it? You've probably heard of the adage of facing your fears will help you overcome them, and you may think it's utterly silly, but here is the thing: it's true.
Think of everything that you fear in life. Maybe it's bugs, snakes, or talking on the phone. Let's say you're thrown into a situation where you have to face one of these fears. You get a new job, but it involves talking on the phone. You may fear for your life initially, but then over time, you start to realize that the situation is way more familiar. This actually can reduce the fear response, and the elation, which is how you overcome fears and treat phobias. It's also why some adrenaline junkies do all of these insane things. It's because they're so used to one type of danger after doing it once, that they have to do something bigger and scarier to make sure that they get that adrenaline going.
What Are Phobias Then
Phobias go along with those conditioned fears that we felt before. One aspect of anxiety is developing a fear of fear. While most people may have fear during a situation, with anxiety disorders, they may fear the fear response, and they think that the fear response is negative, thereby going out of the way to avoid this.
Phobia is a twisting of the response, where the fear is towards an object or situation that may not present actual danger. Those that suffer from this do recognize the fear as unreasonable, but they can't help it, and over time, the fear will get worse, since the fear of the fear response does take hold.
For example, fear of heights is something that we tend to see in our society. Heights, in general, may not be naturally scary. If you're in a place with so many safety measures put in, it seems silly to respond in this fashion. But those with phobias will get scared, and instead of the fear dissipating, it can get heightened in this way.
Treating Phobias and Fears
Treating this is based on the psychology of fear, and it tends to focus on two techniques:
- Systemic desensitization
Both of these are used to reduce the response, and to reduce the fear.
When you use systemic desensitization, essentially you're leading the person who has the phobia throughdifferent parts and exposure situations. Let's say that a person has a fear of water. The first session might be about water, and it can involve looking at water, maybe going to small bodies of water, and eventually getting over to larger bodies of water. This is a very gradual process, and the key thing here is to learn and apply the right techniques for coping and managing your fear responses. It's a way to manage to cope with the fear of the situation and eliminating the fear responses that come from this.
Then, there is flooding. It can be successful, but in essence, it can be much more shocking. In this, the person has a large amount of the feared situation or object, until the fear starts to lesson, and the person acclimates to it. Now this one is one that shouldn't just be done willy-nilly. That's because it can be overwhelming, and it should only be done with a mental health professional since it can be super traumatic in many cases. But, it's got a high rate of success, and it works well for helping the other person cope.
Fear and Results of This
Everyone has fears, yes, but if you're not careful, this can be a very negative situation as a result of this. It can make you run away a lot, but most of all, it can affect how you respond to situations, and how you view life.
For example, fear turns every single risk-taking action into something bad, so you only react in a defensive manner, which is why people don't assess every opinion or make the smarter decisions. That's why those who are fearful get scared and feel off guard when they've got to make a rational decision.
And, there is the fact that the brain will perceive everything that is happening as negative when you're in a fearful situation. If you have a child for example that may have a bad illness or injury, you may fear the hospital whenever you go, and other triggers. It isn't just the action itself that is causing the fear, but it can be the environment as well, and soon you start to associate everything. It truly isn't a healthy way to live, and it's important that you realize just how much fear can impact you, and your life.
Become Less Fearful!
Fear is something that naturally happens, but if you feel like you're too fearful, or having trouble overcoming fear and anxiety, there are a few things that you can do. The biggest one is to see a counselor or other mental health professional to help you treat this anxiety that you have going on. It can be scary, yes, but if you know what you're getting into, and you actively work to create a better situation, you'll be even happier. The psychology of fear may be simple, but sometimes it can be hard to overcome fears without a bit of help, and that's essentially where counseling comes in within this aspect.