Why We Experience Fear — And What To Do About It

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woman feeling fear
Self

Fear is a universal human emotion. Everyone feels afraid sometimes.

Whether it’s running up the stairs in the dark after you turn the lights off or pulling the sheets just a bit closer to your neck in the night, we all experience fear and respond to it in both rational and irrational ways.

And there are a number of common fears that we all share. Many of these get our heart rate up and give us goosebumps, but some can be genuinely problematic with the effects they trigger in certain situations.

It’s important to learn about the varying physical and emotional responses to fear so that you can identify if and when it becomes a problem.

What is fear?

By the most basic definition, fear is "an unpleasant often strong emotion caused by anticipation or awareness of danger."

From a psychological perspective, fear is both a biochemical and emotional response that alerts us to the presence of danger or threats so we can take action to protect ourselves.

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What causes fear?

The body’s reaction to threats in the environment causes fear. The response begins in a part of the brain called the amygdala. This is where the fight or flight response activates and leads the chemical charge that prepares the body for action.

The physical responses then transfer the signal from the amygdala to the nervous system, which controls your body’s movement. The stress hormone cortisol is released. Blood pressure rises, and blood flow increases, along with an extra supply of glucose that’s shot into the musculoskeletal system.

“Our bodies and brains are designed to feel fear,” says LCSW and mindfulness teacher Nichole Moorman. “Healthy fear is a sign that something is off, different, or possibly dangerous. The cascade of changes in the body that accompany fear can fuel immediate or cautious action as we navigate threats and protect ourselves as needed.”

How Fears Help Us

Fears help us in genuinely dangerous situations, allowing the body to react naturally and automatically to any legitimate threats.

Fear is a survival mechanism that’s been used by human beings to escape life-threatening circumstances and is leftover from our animal ancestors.

Moorman says that “We learn about what is dangerous or requires protection or caution, during early childhood with our caregivers and micro culture of our family, and then out into our communities, in school and beyond. Much of this learning, especially early on, but even into adulthood, is implicit, occurring outside our conscious attention.”

In today’s society, the issue lies in the fact that there aren’t many instances where we’re genuinely in danger, and fear can sometimes stand in the way of our everyday lives.

Post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), anxiety disorders and panic disorders are all conditions that can develop when the fear response is triggered often and irrationally.

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Physical and Emotional Signs of Fear Include:

Rapid heartbeat

This occurs due to your body’s increased blood pressure and blood flow. It’s the heart’s job to pump chemicals like adrenaline as quickly as possible so that you can physically react to the cause of your fear.

Shaking

Shaking can occur because extra blood and adrenaline is being pumped around your body, getting your muscles ready to act.

Goosebumps

Everyone can distinctly recall the feeling of the hair rising on the back of your neck when you’re scared. This is actually a reflex that evolved in our ancestors that caused their hair to stand up and make them look larger, so that they could scare away predators.

Quickened breathing

This happens because your body is attempting to push more oxygen into the muscles so that they can be more effective in the face of danger.

Since your blood is pumping faster, and it carries the oxygen into the muscles, your breathing has to be faster in order to take in more oxygen.

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The Difference Between Fears And Phobias

While fear can manifest in response to a genuine threat, phobias arise when someone is afraid of something that’s mostly harmless, or unlikely to pose a real danger.

Phobias are thought to be irrational fears that don’t necessarily evolve due to any genuine need.

Somewhere under 20% of people experience phobias. The research is ongoing and the reasons are unknown. In general, experiencing a fearful event doesn’t contribute to the development of a phobia.

6 Common Fears

1. Agoraphobia

Under 2% of U.S. adults experience agoraphobia. This is categorized by the fear of open spaces, crowds, unfamiliar places, and public transportation.

Oftentimes, panic disorder can cause agoraphobia to develop. Otherwise, it can occur as an unexplained phobia.

2. Fear of heights

Acrophobia, or the fear of heights, affects around 5% of the population. People with this phobia overestimate the height of tall buildings while viewing them from street level

Even the thought of standing atop high surfaces can trigger a fear response.

3. Arachnophobia

Arachnophobia, or the fear of spiders, affects nearly 6% of people. It also encompasses the fear of spider-related objects, particularly spiderwebs.

If the thought of creepy crawlers with eight legs and countless eyes haunts your dreams, then you’re probably arachnophobic.

4. Claustrophobia

Up to 10% of the population is afraid of enclosed spaces, or sufferers from claustrophobia. The fear can make it difficult to engage in daily life.

Some can experience panic attacks when faced with situations like waiting in elevators or otherwise feel trapped.

5. Fear of flying

Also called aerophobia, somewhere around 40% of people are at least mildly anxious when it comes to flying. And 60% of people who are afraid of flying experience generalized anxiety during a flight.

A small number, under 5%, have a clinical phobia and experience crippling anxiety.

6. Public speaking

This one is so common that up to 77% of the population experiences fear when it comes to talking in front of a crowd.

It’s so common that there are well-known coping strategies like picturing your audience naked.

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How To Handle Fears

The first thing to remember is that fear is caused by automatic biological processes.

Fear was developed as a mechanism to get us out of trouble, fast. Whether by freezing or running from danger, we’re designed to find our way to safety when the situation requires it.

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By shifting the brain’s focus to its more logical centers, you can sometimes override the automatic circuitry and train yourself to think more rationally.

When the cerebral cortex is engaged, for instance, the brain can more clearly assess whether what’s threatening you is actually dangerous or not.

The ability to logically determine what’s a genuine threat and what isn’t can allow you to manage your fears and handle the effects of them on your daily life.

Focus on and deepen your breathing. Calming down and breathing can activate the parasympathetic nervous system, which counteracts the fight or flight response.

There are several breathing techniques and mindfulness exercises that can help you tap into this process.

How to Know When to Seek Treatment

These are complex human emotions we’re dealing with, but as with most anything else, as soon as it begins to interfere with your ability to function then you need to look into professional solutions.

If you can’t provide for yourself in terms of food or income due to fear, that’s a serious issue that needs to be addressed. Things to note are whether or not your fear inhibits you from going outside, going to work, getting out of bed, or seeing friends and family.

Conditions can develop in response to fear that may worsen its effects and contribute new ones into the fray. Panic disorder or post-traumatic stress disorder could both develop in response to an acute fear or trauma. Generalized anxiety disorder can also affect those who experience regular sensations of fear, whether rationally or not.

These are serious conditions that require professionals to evaluate and treat, and could be remedied through therapy and medication.

“Our systems just adapt [to fear] the best they can,” Moorman says, “and through no fault of our own, we can develop habits and beliefs that fuel irrational fear or fear reactions that no longer serve us. If we don't have tools to bring attention to what's not working and to adapt, anxiety can hijack our nervous systems and start running the show.”

List Of Helpful Resources

There are a number of helpful resources available to assist you in finding the right treatment for you or to simply point you in the right direction if your fear isn’t yet interfering with daily life.

A few good resources to consider include:

The National Institute of Mental Health Guide for Locating Help

Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Association Treatment Services Locator

NIH Overview of Psychotherapies

Mayo Clinic Guide to Panic Disorder

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Kevin Lankes, MFA, is an editor and author. His fiction and nonfiction have appeared in Here Comes Everyone, Pigeon Pages, Owl Hollow Press, The Huffington Post, The Riverdale Press, and more.