The Psychology of Fear

woman looking behind her in fear
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Fear is a powerful and primitive human emotion. It alerts us to the presence of danger and was critical in keeping our ancestors alive. Fear can actually be divided into two stages, biochemical and emotional. The biochemical response is universal, while the emotional response is highly individualized.

Biochemical Reaction

When we confront a perceived danger, our bodies respond in specific ways. Physical reactions to fear include sweating, increased heart rate, and high adrenaline levels. This physical response is sometimes known as the “fight or flight” response, in which the body prepares itself to either enter combat or run away.

This biochemical reaction is likely an evolutionary development. It is an automatic response and is crucial to survival.

Emotional Response

The emotional response to fear is highly personalized. Some people are adrenaline junkies, thriving on extreme sports and other fear-inducing thrill situations. Others have a negative reaction to the feeling of fear, avoiding fear-inducing situations at all costs. Although the physical reaction is the same, fear may be perceived as either positive or negative.


Repeated exposure to similar situations leads to familiarity. This greatly reduces both the fear response and the resulting elation, leading adrenaline junkies to seek out ever new and bigger thrills. It also forms the basis of some phobia treatments, which depend on slowly minimizing the fear response by making it feel familiar.

Psychology of Phobias

One aspect of anxiety disorders can be a tendency to develop a fear of fear. Where most people tend to experience fear only during a situation that is perceived as scary, those who suffer from anxiety disorders may become afraid that they will experience a fear response. They perceive their fear responses as negative and go out of their way to avoid those responses.

A phobia is a twisting of the normal fear response. The fear is directed toward an object or situation that does not present a real danger. The sufferer recognizes that the fear is unreasonable, yet cannot help the reaction. Over time, the fear tends to worsen as the fear of fear response takes hold.

Treating Phobias

Phobia treatments that are based on the psychology of fear tend to focus on such techniques as systematic desensitization and flooding. Both techniques work with the body’s physiological and psychological responses to reduce the fear.

In systematic desensitization, the client is gradually led through a series of exposure situations. For example, a client with a fear of snakes may spend the first session talking about snakes. Slowly, over subsequent sessions, the client would be led through looking at pictures of snakes, playing with toy snakes, and eventually handling a live snake. This is often accompanied by learning and applying new coping techniques to manage the fear response.

Flooding is a type of exposure technique but can be quite successful. In flooding, the client is exposed to a vast quantity of the feared object or situation until the fear diminishes.

It is important that such confrontational approaches be undertaken only with the guidance of a trained mental health professional. These are potentially traumatic techniques, however, in some circumstances, they have an excellent rate of success.

View Article Sources
  • Tomlinson, Nicole. In Depth: Psychology. “Fear Factors.” CBC News. October 31, 2007. March 15, 2008.