What Is The Psychology Of Fear?
By: Dylan Buckley
Updated November 15, 2019
Medically Reviewed By: Audrey Kelly, LMFT
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 vital to the human experience as it is often a survival tool that helps us cautiously approach situations and avoid them in the event that they could cause physical or emotional harm. But what is fear when is it problematic, and what can we do about it?
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 something you feel physically, such as an increased heart rate, sweating, and higher adrenaline levels. 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, breaking out in a sweat and feeling your heartbeat get faster when you are giving a school presentation.
Then there is the emotional response, which is a personalized response to fear. Some people will actively seek out this fear while others will avoid it at all costs. There are also softer responses throughout the spectrum and fear may be felt as a positive or negative experience.
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? Well, it's something that essentially occurs when we encounter something that we can't understand, control, or that we think will harm us.
We have two types of fears. They are:
- 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 massive lion that could potentially injure you, that's a natural fear. Then, there are the conditioned fears, which are formed when something negative happens in the past and we become fearful of it happening again. Why does this happen? Well, it's an irrational response to something because our brain kind of deludes us into thinking that similar circumstances will lead to the same outcome.
For example, let's imagine that you were bitten by a dog as a child. Even if the happiest, fluffiest dog comes over and says hello with no intent to bite you, you may still react negatively out of 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.
We are typically conditioned to fear the things that we are told are negative. Whether those things are people, places, or objects, we have these beliefs and fears ingrained in us over time. 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 those things.
Reversal Through Acclimation
Did you know though that if you wanted to reverse a fear, you would just have to 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 have to face one of these fears. Say you get a new job, but it involves talking on the phone. You may experience fear for having to do this initially, but then, over time, you will 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. It's also why some adrenaline junkies do all of those 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 can get that adrenaline going.
What Are Phobias?
There are fears and then there are phobias. A phobia is an extreme fear reaction that is not based in reality. For example, some people may fear to leave the house or may fear large buildings. In these situations, the risk of anything happening to you is extremely unlikely but the overwhelming fear takes over. Many phobias are irrational or are rational but blown out of proportion.
Treating Phobias and Fears
There are two techniques associated with treating phobias and fears:
- Systematic desensitization
Both of these are used to reduce the response and to reduce the source of the fear.
When you are treated using systematic desensitization, you are gradually exposed to situations involving the 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. 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 to eliminate the fear responses that come from this.
Then, there is flooding. Aptly named, flooding involves completely immersing the person in situations where the fear is completely present. However, this method may not be right for everyone. 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. That said, it has a high rate of success and may be the right choice for you if carried out properly.
How to Start Conquering Your Fears
While facing some cases of fear should be a medically supervised experience, there are things that you can do at home if you have a mild fear toward something. Here are some helpful tips that will 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? 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 these fears 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 helps us deal 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.
Reach Out for Help If Needed
Fear is something that naturally happens but if you feel like you're too fearful or you are having trouble overcoming your fear and anxiety, calling upon the help of others can be beneficial. The best person to enlist the help of is a counselor, who can guide you through each step of the process. You can easily find a high-quality counselor or therapist at BetterHelp.
BetterHelp is an online counseling platform that streamlines the therapy process by providing you with certified counseling without ever having to compromise on your schedule or even leave your house! If you have heard of these services but want to ensure that you are only getting the best care, read some of the counselor reviews below to get a better idea of who you may be working with.
"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!"
Fear may be intimidating but it is only natural! If your fears are overwhelming you, take the time to learn more about why we feel fear and what you can do to overcome those natural responses and thrive. A fulfilling life in which fears don't hold you back is possible - all you need are the right tools. Take the first step today.
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