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Explanations > Emotions > Fear

Fear is | What we fear | Triggering fear | Response to fearSo what


Fear is

Fear happens to all of us. It is, perhaps, nature's way of stopping us from doing things that may hurt us, such as leaning out from a high cliff or trying to fight someone bigger than us.

Fear can range from a little scare to paralyzing terror. At best, we feel some muscular tension. At worst, our muscles either go completely rigid or totally flaccid. Either way, we collapse - possibly losing the content of our bowels on the way. Fainting from fear is not uncommon, perhaps as the brain switches off rather than countenance further terror.

A little fear can also be quite exciting, for example when we are riding a roller-coaster, where we cognitively know we are safe whilst deliberately triggering automatic fear reactions in order to experience the thrill of the adrenalin rush as we hurtle around the track.

Fear also has a duration element which has different effects. A short, sharp shock grabs our attention and makes us jump, whilst low-level anxiety can wear us down over a long period.

We can also suffer from extreme fears in irrational phobias such as the fear of spiders, open spaces, food and so on.

Fear is the opposite of desire, in that desire attracts whilst fear repels.

What we fear

What do we fear? Understanding this can be a route to the management of fear.

A basic fear is of pain, especially if we have recently experienced it or can easily imagine it. A torturer standing in front of the person, instruments in hand has long been sufficient to persuade many to give up their secrets. We also fear emotional pain, such as in distress and loss. It is perhaps not surprising that the same part of the brain processes physical and emotional pain.  The response to pain, real or imagined, is to urgently seek to reduce it. We also fear social pain such as disgrace, shame and being ignored by others.

We fear for our selves, and the fear of death is not the same as the fear of dying (which may include considerations of pain). Death (unless you have religious beliefs about this) means the extinction of the self, the ultimate loss of identity. This is also why we fear mental illness. Another deep fear is of loss of control. In fact a threat to most needs can result in fear.

We can also fear for others and the world in general. This can be worse than fearing for oneself as these are often areas outside one's control. This is the dilemma of many parents who see their children act badly yet feel powerless to control it.

Triggering fear

Fear is triggered by an immediate and obvious threat, such as when a person points a gun in your face. When this happens, the amygdala may well trigger an automatic response that does not even give you time to think (which can be a good thing -- you don't have time to muse about what to do when a lion is jumping out at you). A person who has had their amygdala (where fear is triggered) removed not only loses their fear but also their ability to recognize anger.

Fear also occurs after cognitive inference where we predict that either our needs or our goals will be damaged in some way. Fear is thus triggered by an internal forecast.

Sound is a primitive trigger of fear and the roar of a lion or the scream of a terrified child can send shivers down your spine. The sound of danger or the fear of others implies an imminent threat and so fear is triggered to elicit a desire for escape and survival.

Our need for control is, to some extent, fear-driven. If I cannot control the world around me, it may threaten me. Just my forecast of this is enough to cause me to fear.

Pessimism leads to fear, as we habitually forecast that we will fail or that bad things will happen to us. Because we can never fully forecast the future, we may live in a permanent state of fear.

Much has been made of the fear of death, which we know we will all ultimately face. Samurai warriors were famed for having no fear of death and would even commit suicide at the whim of their masters.

Fear can also happen from confusion, which happens when we are unable to infer meaning. The logic of this goes something like 'I can't find any meaning. I don't know if it will harm me. I'd better feel frightened, just in case.'

Fear is related to anger. Fear is triggered by anger and, unsurprisingly, anger seeks to create fear.  Fear can also morph into anger when the Fight-or-Flight reaction goes down the fight path.

When people recognize something fearful a common response is to get away from it somehow. If, however, the subject of fear is vague and there is no clear escape, then a common alternative response is to deny the fear, pretending that it does not exist.

Response to fear

When fear triggers the Fight-or-Flight reaction, we become aroused in readiness for fighting, fleeing or otherwise acting to reduce the fear. Arousal itself releases cortisol and adrenaline which have a suppressant effect on fear as they drive us into action.

Fear also causes more general stress, which has effects such as the Yerkes-Dodson effect and satisficing, where our priorities turn to reduction in stress and consequent fear.

So what?

Fear is probably the ultimate negative motivators and is thus often used to move people, although this is an avoidance method that can lead to unpredictable results. Sheep fear a sheepdog - the result is that they scatter in all directions, which is not what the sheepdog really wants.

The unsubtle approach to using is physical threat. More subtle methods use hints and insinuations of social exclusion or other things we seek to avoid.

Fear is thus useful when you want to move a person away from something. It can also be used to shake them out of their current complacency. Fear is a push strategy. It is often best followed up with something that pulls the other person towards the desired objective.

See also

Type of Fear, Appeal to Fear, Fear and Persuasion, General Adaptation Syndrome, The Amygdala by-pass system, Operant Conditioning, The Fear of Public Speaking, Fight-or-Flight Reaction, Push principle, Threat principle, Anger and Fear


Lazarus, R. and Lazarus, B. (1994), Passion and Reason, Oxford University Press, New York


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