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 it was critical in keeping our ancestors alive. Fear can be divided into two responses, biochemical and emotional. The biochemical response is universal, while the emotional response is highly individual.

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, in 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 is highly personalized. Because fear involves some of the same chemical responses 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 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, depending on the person.

Causes of Fear

Fear is incredibly complex. Some fears may be a result of experiences or trauma, while others may actually 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, even if you're simply watching a video or looking at a picture and in no actual danger.

Scientists are trying to understand exactly what fear is and what causes it, but this is a supremely difficult undertaking in light of the differences between individuals in terms of what they fear and why. Not to mention that there is no agreement between scientists who study fear as to whether it's a sort of behavior that's only observable or something our brains are physically wired to do.

Acclimation

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 or threatening, 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. 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.

Treating Phobias

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 the fear.

  • Systematic desensitization: In this treatment, 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 talking about snakes. Slowly, over subsequent sessions, you would be led 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. It's based on the premise that your phobia is a learned behavior and you need to unlearn it. In flooding, you're 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 actually 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.

    It's important that such confrontational approaches be undertaken only with the guidance of a trained mental health professional because these are potentially traumatic techniques. However, in some circumstances, they have an excellent rate of success if you're up for trying them.

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