What Is Fear?

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What Is Fear?

Fear is a natural, powerful, and primitive human emotion. It involves a universal biochemical response as well as a high individual emotional response. Fear alerts us to the presence of danger or the threat of harm, whether that danger is physical or psychological.

Sometimes fear stems from real threats, but it can also originate from imagined dangers. Fear can also be a symptom of some mental health conditions including panic disorder, social anxiety disorder, phobias, and post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD).

Fear is composed of two primary reactions to some type of perceived threat: biochemical and emotional.

Biochemical Reaction

Fear is a natural emotion and a survival mechanism. When we confront a perceived threat, our bodies respond in specific ways. Physical reactions to fear include sweating, increased heart rate, and high adrenaline levels that make us extremely alert.

This physical response is also known as the “fight or flight” response, with which your body prepares itself to either enter combat or run away. This biochemical reaction is likely an evolutionary development. It's an automatic response that is crucial to our survival.

Emotional Response

The emotional response to fear, on the other hand, is highly personalized. Because fear involves some of the same chemical reactions in our brains that positive emotions like happiness and excitement do, feeling fear under certain circumstances can be seen as fun, like when you watch scary movies.

Some people are adrenaline seekers, 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, the experience of fear may be perceived as either positive or negative, depending on the person.

Symptoms

Fear often involves both physical and emotional symptoms. Each person may experience fear differently, but some of the common signs and symptoms include:

  • Chest pain
  • Chills
  • Dry mouth
  • Nausea
  • Rapid heartbeat
  • Shortness of breath
  • Sweating
  • Trembling
  • Upset stomach

In addition to the physical symptoms of fear, people may experience psychological symptoms of being overwhelmed, upset, feeling out of control, or a sense of impending death.

Diagnosis

Talk to your doctor if you are experiencing persistent and excessive feelings of fear. Your doctor may conduct a physical exam and perform lab tests to ensure that your fear and anxiety are not linked to an underlying medical condition.

Your doctor will also ask questions about your symptoms including how long you've been having them, their intensity, and situations that tend to trigger them. Depending on your symptoms, your doctor may diagnose you with a type of anxiety disorder, such as a phobia.

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 or threatening, those who live with 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. Though you recognize that the fear is unreasonable, you can't help the reaction. Over time, the fear tends to worsen as the fear of fear response takes hold.

Causes

Fear is incredibly complex. Some fears may be a result of experiences or trauma, while others may represent a fear of something else entirely, such as a loss of control. Still, other fears may occur because they cause physical symptoms, such as being afraid of heights because they make you feel dizzy and sick to your stomach.

Some common fear triggers include:

  • Certain specific objects or situations (spiders, snakes, heights, flying, etc)
  • Future events
  • Imagined events
  • Real environmental dangers
  • The unknown

Certain fears tend to be innate and may be evolutionarily influenced because they aid in survival. Others are learned and are connected to associations or traumatic experiences. 

Types

Some of the different types of anxiety disorders that are characterized by fear include:

  • Agoraphobia
  • Generalized anxiety disorder
  • Panic disorder
  • Post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD)
  • Separation anxiety disorder
  • Social anxiety disorder
  • Specific phobia
  • Social anxiety disorder

Treatment

Repeated exposure to similar situations leads to familiarity, which can dramatically reduce both the fear response. This approach forms the basis of some phobia treatments, which depend on slowly minimizing the fear response by making it feel familiar.

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

Systematic Desensitization

With systematic desensitization, you're gradually led through a series of exposure situations. For example, if you have a fear of snakes, you may spend the first session with your therapist talking about snakes. Slowly, over subsequent sessions, your therapist would lead you through looking at pictures of snakes, playing with toy snakes, and eventually handling a live snake. This is usually accompanied by learning and applying new coping techniques to manage the fear response.

Flooding

This is a type of exposure technique that can be quite successful. Flooding based on the premise that your phobia is a learned behavior and you need to unlearn it. With flooding, you are exposed to a vast quantity of the feared object or exposed to a feared situation for a prolonged amount of time in a safe, controlled environment until the fear diminishes. For instance, if you're afraid of planes, you'd go on up in one anyway.

The point is to get you past the overwhelming anxiety and potential panic to a place where you have to confront your fear and eventually realize that you're OK. This can help reinforce a positive reaction (you're not in danger) with a feared event (being in the sky on a plane), ultimately getting you past the fear.

While these treatments can be highly effective, it's important that such confrontational approaches be undertaken only with the guidance of a trained mental health professional.

Coping

There are also steps that you can take to help cope with fear in day to day life. Such strategies focus on managing the physical, emotional, and behavioral effects of fear. Some things you can do include:

  • Get social support. Having supportive people in your life can help you manage your feelings of fear.
  • Practice mindfulness. While you cannot always prevent certain emotions, being mindful can help you manage them and replace negative thoughts with more helpful ones.
  • Use stress management techniques such as deep breathing, progressive muscle relaxation, and visualization.
  • Take care of your health. Eat well, get regular exercise, and get adequate sleep each night.

A Word From Verywell

Fear is an important human emotion that can help protect you from danger and prepare you to take action, but it can also lead to longer-lasting feelings of anxiety. Findings ways to control your fear can help you better cope with these feelings and prevent anxiety from taking hold.

If you or a loved one are struggling with fears, phobias, or anxiety, contact the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA) National Helpline at 1-800-662-4357 for information on support and treatment facilities in your area.

For more mental health resources, see our National Helpline Database.

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