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What Is Fear?

Updated: Jun 22, 2022

Learn all about fear and how to overcome it.

Put simply, fear is the experience we have when we feel threatened (Adolphs, 2013). Whether the threat is an upcoming performance review at work, the steep slope of a mountain you’ve chosen to ski down, or the sound of footsteps behind you at night, fear is a full-body, stressful experience of anticipating something bad might happen. We usually think of fear as an emotion (Thomson, 1979), but scientists also define fear according to the thoughts, behaviors, and changes in our bodies that happen when we feel fear (Buck, 1984; Ekman, 1977).

We often use the words “fear” and “anxiety” as if they are pretty much the same thing. However, researchers and psychologists have distinct definitions for each word. Fear is an immediate and automatic response to something threatening in your environment. If you respond effectively to the fearful situation, you may not fear it as much next time. However, if you don’t resolve or get out of the fearful situation, you learn to worry about that situation happening again. That’s how anxiety develops. In other words, anxiety results from being in fearful situations that you don’t think you can handle (Beck & Emery, 2005; Ohman, 2008).

Fear in the body

When something frightens you, your conscious experience of it may be a combination of physical symptoms (more on these in a moment) and fearful thoughts. Psychologists and other scientists, however, think of fear as a response your body makes to something threatening, with the goal of defending you against it (Johnson, 2016). Parts of your brain that focus on detecting threats go on high alert, telling the rest of your body to flood with hormones and prepare you to react effectively (LeDoux, 2003). This high-alert response involves many changes in your body.

Fear in the mind

Psychologists also measure fear by looking at how frequent, intense, and long-lasting the thoughts are about the threatening event (Rachman et al., 1987). To take an example, most people who are about to have surgery done will have some fearful thoughts regarding negative outcomes. However, if those thoughts come up so frequently or are so difficult to ignore that they make it hard for somebody to go about their daily life, then they may need professional help coping with that fear.

Fear in our behavior

When we face something threatening, we try to respond adaptively. All of the ways we behave in the face of fear function to help us stay safe (Adolphs, 2013). As you may have heard before, most animals, including humans, respond to frightening circumstances with some version of “fight” (e.g., getting ready to meet the threat head-on), “flight” (e.g., getting ready to run away and avoid the danger), or “freeze” (e.g., shutting down so that the threat may pass you by) (Bracha et al., 2004).

Common Symptoms of Fear

  • Rapid heartbeat

  • Sweating

  • Trembling

  • Shortness of breath

  • Wobbly legs

  • Dizzy or lightheaded

  • Feeling of choking

  • Indigestion

  • Chest pain

  • Getting chills

  • Flushed face

  • Dry mouth

​In addition, to these physical symptoms, people often report feeling overwhelmed, out of control, nervous, or numb, when they are afraid (Beck & Steer, 1993).

Overcoming Fear

Hundreds of studies have shown that the most effective way to treat fear is to expose oneself to fearful situations (McLean et al., 2022). Exposure therapy, as this is called, can look several different ways. People who fear specific situations work with a therapist to face those situations in progressively more fearful ways. For example, somebody who is afraid of spiders might first read about spiders, then look at a picture of a spider, then watch a video of spiders, then sit across the room from a spider in a cage.

Another technique, which is more commonly used to support people with PTSD, is to practice intentionally focusing on events that were especially scary (McLean et al., 2022). As people practice writing out and reading out loud the stories of what has happened to them, in a safe and therapeutic context, they begin to have less fear that such a situation will happen again.

We can also overcome fear by consciously regulating our bodies. Taking deep breaths, consciously relaxing our muscles, and even imagining ourselves in a less stressful situation can reduce fear.

Overall, fear is an essential human emotion, an evolutionary gift designed to keep us safe from harm. Your fears are natural and they are trying to help you. It’s up to you to decide whether to heed each fear or try to overcome it. I hope this article has helped you understand when and how to do that.

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  • Adolphs, R. (2013). The biology of fear. Current Biology, 23(2), R79-R93.

  • Beck, A. T., & Emery, G. (2005). Anxiety disorders and phobias: a cognitive perspective. New York: Basic Books.

  • Beck, A. T., & Steer, R. A. (1993). Beck anxiety inventory manual. San Antonio: Psychological Corporation.

  • Bracha, H. S., Ralston, T. C., Matsukawa, J. M., Williams, A. E., & Bracha, A. S. (2004). Does “fight or flight” need updating? Psychosomatics, 45(5), 448-449.

  • Buck, R. (1984). The communication of emotion. New York: Guilford Press.

  • Ekman, P. (1977). Biological and cultural contributions to body and facial movement. In J. Blacking (Ed.), A.S.A. monograph 15, the anthropology of the body (pp. 39–84). London: Academic Press.

  • Johnson, L. R. (2016). Editorial: how fear and stress shape the mind. Frontiers in Behavioral Neuroscience, 10, 00024.

  • LeDoux, J. (2003). The emotional brain, fear, and the amygdala. Cellular and Molecular Neurobiology, 23, 727–738.​

  • McLean., C. P., Levy, H. C., Miller, M. L., & Tolin, D. F. (2022). Exposure therapy for PTSD: a meta-analysis. Clinical Psychology Review, 91, 102115.

  • Öhman, A. (2008). Fear and anxiety: Overlap and dissociation. In M. Lewis, J. M. Haviland-Jones, & L. Feldman Barrett (Eds.), Handbook of emotions (3rd ed., pp. 709–729). New York, NY: Guilford Press.

  • Rachman, S., Levitt, K., & Lopatka, C. (1987). Panic: the links between cognitions and bodily symptoms – I. Behaviour Research and Therapy, 25(5), 411-423.

  • Thomson, R. (1979). The concept of fear. In W. Sluckin (Ed.), Fear in animals and man (pp. 1–23). New York: Van Nostrand Reinhold.

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