Inside Fear

“Neither a man nor a crowd nor a nation can be trusted to act humanely or to think sanely under the influence of a great fear.” (Bertrand Russell)

Myrmecophobia, phalacrophobia, hobophobia, acrophobia, pentheraphobia, hypengyophobia, venustraphobia, ailurophobia, gamophobia, ophidiophobia, arachnophobia, hydrophobia, alektorophobia, philophobia, logophobia and testophobia*. Do you have these symptoms for any of these? If you do, you are likely to be a normal human.

Fear is a common and dictating aspect of human behaviour. It is such a common reality to be afraid, that we have literally hundreds of words describing a particular fear which someone has reported suffering from. There are enough words to create a Phobia Dictionary. In this article, we will analyse the underpinnings of fear, an impressive (and often disconcerting) human emotion.

What is Fear?

Fear is mainly a physical response. The hypothalamic-pituitary-adrenal (HPA) system in the human brain is loaded with dopamine and adrenaline, which are chemical messengers from the body. In a ‘danger situation’, the HPA releases these messengers along with a hormone (cortisol) which in turn activates the amygdala (an area of the brain responsible for emotional responses, including fear conditioning). This reaction results in increased blood pressure, sugar availability, and an energy boost that allows humans to perform quite amazing displays of strength, reaction, and awareness in confrontational situations.

Because these chemical reactions occur before we have had the opportunity to consciously interpret the event, at times it can negatively impact upon our life. For instance, you may be walking in a dark street at night, and hear a loud noise. Before you actually evaluate the situation and assess the danger, your brain will access data from the hippocampus (brain area responsible for memory) and determine instant readiness to the situation. In this scenario, you may take an impulsive move, or make a bad decision. Thus, fear is seen (particularly by males) as a sign of weakness and a negative trait.

The Foundations of Fear

The causes of fear can vary to a surprising extent. They may be originated from a stress response which is related to a traumatic event from the individual’s past; it can be a socially-motivated fear; or it can be a biologically-induced one. An example of a traumatic event would include a stressor, which is mainly a noise or image which is associated to an event which has incurred a personal trauma. Thus, people who are afraid of snakes will usually react with fear when they hear a noise which resembles a snake (naturally this interpretation will depend on the context).

A socially-motivated fear can be caused by a relationship between an event and its outcome. For instance, during the 19th Century in Britain, dying poor and helpless, was considered one of the most common fears. Early in the 20th Century, this shifted to the fear of being buried alive. During the 1st World War, bombs were much more ‘scary’ than during the 2nd World War.

Finally, biologically-induced fear refers to predispositions in our genes, due to evolution, which makes us prone to fear something. There have been studies which relate xenophobia and racism to behaviour from the Stone Age period, explaining why people naturally tend to shun outsiders.

Fear Counselling

As we’ve previously stated, fear seems to be a negative trait perceived from the eyes of common sense. But is it really? Although we cannot change the way our body physically responds to a threat, we can change the way we emotionally respond to our body. This becomes a strategy to avoid trauma, distress and bad decision-making when faced with the adrenalin pump that fear creates.

The basis of exploring the positive side of fear is changing conditioned behaviour. The inability to react positively in a state of fear is due to a memory associative process, in which the individual cannot see past negative outcomes which could occur. For example, a person who has a fear of heights will not be able to climb a tree because they will constantly enforce the idea of free-falling and getting badly hurt (or even dying). The problem is not in the sensation of fear, but in the association of the emotion and a negative outcome.

Cognitive restructuring techniques such as Thought Stopping and Rational Emotive Therapy are common methods used by counsellors to alleviate fears and barriers. Creating awareness and willingness to change is a crucial part of the counselling process, and can determine the turning point for the client – the moment of surpassing fears, and approaching success.

*Fear of… ants, becoming old, beggars, heights, mother-in-law, responsibility, beautiful women, cats, marriage, snakes, spiders, water, chickens, falling in love, words and taking tests.