The Mastery of Emotion: Fear

by Dec 7, 2016Emotional Health

A sudden loud noise that makes us jump, a swift movement in the corner of your eye that raises the hair on the back of our neck, or a moment of sheer dread when our heart rises into our throat and our stomach plummets. The universal experience of fear that serves a very distinct purpose: our basic survival. Yet the irony of this emotion is that we are often only aware of its presence after we have returned to a state of calm and reflect on our experience. We all experience fear, however, are we truly aware of its varying forms, states, and intensities? What does the emotion of fear mean to our sense of safety or personal well-being, and what can we do to manage fear that may seem unfounded and when it doesn’t serve us?


Fear is described as an intuitive and instinctive emotion that leads to adaptive physiological, cognitive and behavioral responses to either a real or perceived threat. Animal behaviorists (ethologists) define fear as a motivational state aroused by specific stimuli that give rise to defensive behavior or escape. Across human evolution, fear has allowed us to survive in the most adverse of conditions; for example, a wooly mammoth charging towards us, or a natural disaster such as flood waters or an earthquake. We can experience fear in a wide variety of intensities including trepidation, nervousness, anxiety, dread, desperation, panic, horror and terror.

Fear can also occur as either innate (natural) or learned (constructed). The fear of falling and the fear of loud noises are viewed as the only innate or natural fears that we are actually born with. We observe babies automatically reacting to the potential of either of these scenarios from the second they are born. In comparison, learned fear is established and reinforced throughout our childhood development as a result of relational, environmental and cultural influences. For example, we are not born with an innate fear of spiders or sharks. This fear occurs because we are taught to respond as a result of the association between a potential threat or cue (a spider) and a fear outcome (being bit and risk of falling ill). Depending on what and how we learn, a potential threat can be very real, anticipated or sometimes even imagined.


Fear serves as both physical and psychological information for us to determine an appropriate survival response. In other words, it is the psychobiological reaction to a given threat, that occurs automatically. This information has the ability to activate our body to respond even before we are cognitively aware of what’s occurring. It allows us to perceive a potential threat, regardless of whether we are aware or even familiar with the circumstance, by connecting our innate or learnt associations as a conductor on how to respond. For example, if we find ourselves in an unfamiliar setting or environment, we might experience trepidation or even nervousness, resulting in us proceeding cautiously or with hyper-vigilance.


How we experience fear is directly related to the nature of a threat. The nature of fear is a complex beast, often referred to as either real fear (an actual threat to physical harm) or psychological fear. Real fear triggers a series of physiological, neurological and psychological responses that result in the classic fight, freeze or flight behaviors. Psychological fear incorporates elements far more involved that our basic instincts. As described, we are conditioned to prepare for a fear outcome, which in some situations leads to the act of anticipation. The tricky part is, anticipation does not denote the existence of a real threat. This is when we describe the terms of rational or appropriate and irrational or inappropriate fear. It is a subjective expectation of an experience that may or may not occur, however, we are constantly initiating a fear response, there is an increased possibility of chronic physical, neurological and psychological problems.

According to contemporary theory; there are five tenants of fear:

  1. Fear of extinction: also referred to as the fear of death, annihilation or of ceasing to exist. The idea of no longer existing or being provokes an existential anxiety for most individuals. Some may experience this fear when faced with heights, or expansive spaces or other cues that stir feelings of our mortality.
  2. Fear of injury or mutilation: defined by the fear of losing any part of our precious bodily structure; the thought of having our body’s boundaries invaded, or of losing the integrity of any organ, body part, or natural function.
  3. Fear of loss of autonomy: the fear of being immobilized, paralyzed, restricted, enveloped, overwhelmed, entrapped, imprisoned, smothered, or otherwise controlled by circumstances beyond our control. In physical form, it’s commonly known as claustrophobia, but it also extends to our social interactions and relationships in the form of losing one’s self.
  4. Fear of separation or aloneness: this relates to an association of abandonment, rejection, and loss of connectedness with others; of becoming a non-person, someone who is wanted, respected, or valued by anyone else. Anyone who has experienced being shunned or rejected by a group or tribe may experience a significant, adverse psychological reaction.
  5. Fear of ego-death: a fancy way to describe humiliation, shame, or any other mechanism of profound self-disapproval that threatens the loss of integrity of the self; the fear of the shattering or disintegration of one’s constructed sense of lovability, capability, and worthiness.


Similar to the various physiological, neurological and psychological responses experienced when we experience anger, our brain triggers the all too familiar fight or flight response. When we experience fear, two key parts of our brain are activated. The first part to fire up is the ‘amygdala’. The amygdala is the neurological center or sensory system for coordinating behavioral, autonomic and endocrine (hormone) responses to external stimuli (visual, sound and smell cues). Within milliseconds of the amygdala activating, the following physiological actions occur:

  • Increase of heart rate and blood pressure;
  • Pupils dilate to increase sight and input of light;
  • Blood is redirected to major muscle groups;
  • Blood-glucose level increases;
  • Muscles tense, adrenaline and glucose level increase;
  • Lungs increase oxygen intake;
  • Non-essential systems (digestion and immune system) shut down to allow more energy for emergency functions;

Another key player is the higher cortical center of the brain. This part references cue and memory. It will reference our experiences and knowledge of a potential threat and potentially override the amygdala, allowing us to control our sense of fear.


While we are no longer likely to be threatened by that beastly wooly mammoth, experiencing fear is a normal human emotional response. However, when we experience prolonged real or perceived fear it can become extremely debilitating. Because we typically recognize fear after the fact, managing fear can be difficult. How we care for ourselves, after the experience is imperative. According to DuPont, Dupont, & DuPont (1998), there are a number of options to help reduce the impact of a fear experience. The objective is to condition ourselves to identify and quantify a fear trigger or cue to reducing its impact. Here are some suggestions;

It doesn’t matter why you’re scared. Knowing why you’ve developed a particular fear doesn’t do much to help you overcome it, and it delays your progress in areas that will actually help you become less afraid. Stop trying to figure it out.

  1. Learn about the thing you fear. Uncertainty is a huge component of fear: Developing an understanding of what you’re afraid of goes a long way toward erasing that fear.
  2. Train. If there’s something you’re afraid to try because it seems scary or difficult, start small and work in steps. Slowly building familiarity with a scary subject makes it more manageable.
  3. Find someone who is not afraid. If there’s something you’re afraid of, find someone who is not afraid of that thing and spend time with that person. Take them along when you try to conquer your fear.
  4. Talk about it – more than once. Sharing your fears out loud can reduce the scale of the experience.
  5. Play mind games with yourself. If you’re afraid of speaking in front of groups, it’s probably because you think the audience is going to judge you. Try imagining the audience members naked, being the only clothed person in the room puts you in the position of judgment.
  6. Reduce reflecting on the grand scheme. Reflect on small, successive steps. If you’re afraid of heights, don’t think about being on the fortieth floor of a building. Just think about getting your foot in the lobby.
  7. Seek help. Fear is not a simple emotion. If you’re having trouble overcoming your fear on your own, find a professional to help you. There are lots of professional treatment options available and it’s possible to overcome fears with the guidance of someone with training and experience.

Fear is the most primary of human emotions. It has served to protect us since the dawn of time and it can be both incredibly intense and profound. We often experience fear in a plethora of emotional experiences, such as fear of isolation, shame, guilt, embarrassment, etc. When we explore and acknowledge our fears, it is possible to reduce the impact that it can create. Fear can occur as either real or rational, or perceived or irrational.

We all experience fear in some capacity or form, almost daily. Regardless of what type of fear you may experience or struggle with, there is a wide range of practical strategies to lessen its impact. Fear serves a purpose, however, not at the expense of your mental and physical well-being and your relationships.

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Image courtesy of Stefan Rheone (2016) on Flicker

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Gibson, E. J., & Walk, R. D. (1960). The visual cliff. Scientific American, 202, 67–

Kounang, N (2015), What is the science behind fear?

Sarhan, A (2013) Fear & Greed Intro and eight practical tips to deal with fear.

Steimer, T. (2002). The biology of fear and anxiety-related behaviors. Dialogues in Clinical Neuroscience, 4(3), 231–249.