Psychology of Fear: Our Complete Beginners Guide

Sometimes when we consider what negative feelings we have, we would love to eliminate from life once and for all. The number one thing that comes to mind is fear. Fear is a very uncomfortable emotion, and when we're experiencing, it can mentally cripple us. A life with no fear sounds really great in theory! After all, imagine what you could accomplish if you didn't have fear holding you back like a prisoner. But upon examining the psychology of fear, we begin to uncover its importance in our lives.

Fear can be crippling, overwhelming, and debilitating. It can make us completely paralyzed. However, when it comes to our basic understanding of fear, our logic tends to be faulty. Nature works in brilliant ways so that even something seemingly negative like fear plays a useful and important role in our life. Once you understand the psychology of fear, it becomes easier to accept it and understand its place and necessity.

If we got our wish and got rid of fear altogether, we would be extremely vulnerable to all forms of outside harm. Fear is our natural instinct to protect ourselves from our environment. Like a house security system, it goes off when it senses an intruder. It alerts us to things being possibly wrong or dangerous. It's a shield that protects us from getting ourselves into sticky and potentially threatening situations. Fear can be a force for good, but it can also sway to the side of unhealthy. When fear becomes irrational, meaning the perceived threat is imaginary and reaches a harmful level on a consistent basis, it can become an impairment. Irrational fears are known as phobias.

It's understandable why some people wish they could get rid of fear. Fear can make no sense and leave you immobilized in some instances. However, what you truly want to do is learn how to manage your fear, not completely get rid of it.

What Is Fear?

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Despite what many might think, fear has a legitimate place in our lives and plays an important role in keeping us safe from harm. Fear is a normal brain function, and in fact, lack of fear can often signify brain damage. We are hard-wired to protect ourselves from predators and other potential dangers, and fear is one evolutionary mechanism that allows us to do that. The psychology of fear is partly instinctual and partly learned. 


Instinctive fear is our response to pain, for example, because it threatens our survival. Meanwhile learned fear is the way we feel towards a scary place or person. If your aunt has slapped you in the past, you might have naturally developed a fear of seeing her due to the threat of physical violence you now associate with her. If you fell down from a bike and sustained a brain concussion, you might now be afraid of getting back a bike due to fearing the same or worse situation happening again.

Fear is not a pleasant or comfortable feeling for a good reason. It's supposed to jolt you awake and make you aware of potential danger. Therefore experiencing fear can be incredibly unpleasant for many people.

The Causes

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The psychology of fear isn't always straightforward because fear isn't always caused by something scary or rational. Sometimes we're afraid because we expect something scary to happen.

When you're already afraid, your fear response is intensified so that any small thing might terrify you. For example, if you're afraid of flying, any type of turbulence on a plane will send you into a state of major panic.

Sometimes our fears can be debilitating. Because our brains are so evolved, we have the ability to anticipate and even imagine scary situations, which can lead to a lot of unnecessary and neurotic fear. This type of fear isn't healthy nor is it helpful.

When we are extremely distressed by something we perceive to be dangerous, but that is in fact not dangerous, and we go out of our way to avoid it, we are experiencing fear to an imagined threat. This type of fear is problematic and might need psychological intervention, especially if we are aware that it's irrational yet cannot do anything to stop it from occurring.

The Psychology of Fear: The Effects on the Mind

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When it comes to the psychology of fear, there is a shared common thread that connects how most humans tend to experience it. There are many psychological effects that take place when the human mind is subjected to fear. Our response to fear can be divided into two categories: biochemical and emotional. The biochemical response is the same for everyone while the emotional response can widely vary. 

The biochemical response consists of our bodies automatically responding in certain common ways that signal major distress. We will start sweating; our heart rate will increase, our adrenaline levels will go up. Sometimes we will get heart palpitations, dry mouth, or start feeling dizzy. This is known as the "fight or flight" response when the body gets ready to attack or to flee. This biochemical response is automatic, and it's within us for survival reasons.

The emotional response to fear is quite different and varies much more from person to person. Some people enjoy the adrenaline that fear brings, while others do everything in their power to avoid it.

For example, there are many people who love watching horror movies or going to haunted houses, where they knowingly subject themselves to fear on purpose. If fear is such an unwanted and unpleasant sensation, then why do some people enjoy it? In the above circumstances, the fear experienced is within limitations and within a safety net. We might feel the rush of adrenaline when a zombie jumps out at us on the TV screen, but we consciously know that we are in a safe environment. Meanwhile, when we're really afraid, things become much more unpleasant.

Another form of fear is a phobia. People develop irrational phobias that prevent them from fully enjoying life. Phobias can be anything from fear of snakes, water, spiders, heights or even clowns. Phobias typically begin in childhood or early adulthood and can be the results of some type of trauma or from being exposed to a person with phobias. Phobias can become so out of control that they will need to be professionally treated. A common treatment for irrational fear is repeated exposure, so that was the person suffering from the fear can desensitize themselves to it. For example, if you have a fear of spiders, and you decide to seek treatment for it, your first session might include just talking about spiders. Eventually, you might begin looking at some pictures or videos of spiders. Then, your therapist might suggest that you hold a toy spider. Eventually, if you work up to it, they might have you touch an actual spider.

If you have numerous phobias, it might be helpful to address them by seeking professional help. Phobias also start to develop when you start fearing fear itself. Developing an unnatural response to fear can make life very difficult.


Knowing the basic psychology of fear can help you rationally judge and understand what's happening to your mind and your body when you are feeling afraid. It can help you decide whether you have a legitimate fear or an irrational one. Fear is not a pleasant feeling, but understanding its purpose helps you cope with it more efficiently. 

There are certain fears in life that you might need to overcome, like fearing to go into your boss's office to discuss your performance or the fear of public speaking. Other fears should remain in place, like feeling fear and going the other way if you see a scary man on the street holding a bloody knife in his hand, or if you hear suspicious rustling behind you when walking home at night in a dark alley. Determining which fear is warranted and which is bogus, is essential to having a healthy approach to fear. When we cannot decipher between the two, the concept of fear may be distorted which may require an intervention.

If you do decide that you need to overcome certain fears, know that it's difficult, but it is within your power. It's helpful to understand the psychology of fear and the fact it exists essentially to keep us safe. Once you realize that fact, it becomes much more possible to deal with fear when you experience it.

Overall, fear is a complex emotion. It makes sense from an evolutionary perspective, yet it can be a total nuisance in day-to-day life when it's unwarranted. Fear can be your friend or your enemy; it's all a matter of perspective and how you deal with it. A healthy approach of looking at fear is seeing it as an evolutionary tool for survival that's helped us avoid danger and injury since the dawn of man. However, if you're experiencing too much fear consistently, it's a good idea to seek professional help in overcoming your phobias.

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