The psychology behind fear (2023)

Fear is a natural, powerful and primitive feeling.human emotion. According to psychology research, it involves a universal biochemical response and a high individual emotional response. Fear alerts us to the presence of danger or threat of harm, be it physical or psychological danger.

Sometimes fear comes from real threats, but it can also come from imaginary dangers. While fear is a natural response to some situations, it can also cause distress and upset when it is extreme or disproportionate to the actual threat.

Fear can also be a symptom of some mental health conditions, includingPanic Syndrome, social anxiety disorder,phobiasand post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD).

Fear is made up of two primary reactions to some type of perceived threat: biochemical and emotional.

biochemical reaction

Fear is a natural emotion and a survival mechanism. When we are faced with a perceived threat, our bodies respond in specific ways. Physical reactions to fear include sweating, increased heart rate and high levels of adrenaline that make us extremely alert.

This physical response is also known as"fight or flight response, with which your body prepares to enter combat or flee. This biochemical reaction is likely an evolutionary development. It's an automatic response that is crucial to our survival.

emotional response

The emotional response to fear, on the other hand, is highly personalized. Since fear involves some of the same chemical reactions in our brains as positive emotions like happiness and excitement, feeling afraid in certain circumstances can be seen as fun, like when you're lookinghorror movies.

some people areadrenaline chasers, thriving in extreme sports and other thrilling, fear-inducing situations. Others react negatively to the feeling of fear, avoiding situations that provoke fear at all costs.

Although the physical reaction is the same, the experience of fear can be perceived as positive or negative, depending on the person.

fear symptoms

Fear usually involves both physical and emotional symptoms. Each person can experience fear differently, but some of the common signs and symptoms include:

  • Chest pain
  • Chills
  • Dry mouth
  • nausea
  • fast heartbeat
  • difficulty breathing
  • Perspiration
  • shivering
  • Bellyache

In addition to the physical symptoms of fear, people may experience psychological symptoms of being overwhelmed, upset, feeling out of control, or a sense of impending doom.

diagnosing fear

Talk to your doctor if you experience persistent and excessive fear. Your doctor can perform a physical exam and run lab tests to make sure your fear and anxiety aren't related to an underlying medical condition.

Your doctor will also ask you questions about your symptoms, including how long you've had them, how severe they are, and what situations tend to trigger them. Depending on your symptoms, your doctor may diagnose you with a type of anxiety disorder, such as a phobia.

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One aspect of anxiety disorders can be a tendency to develop a fear of fear.Where most people tend to only experience fear during a situation that is perceived as frightening or threatening, those living with anxiety disorders may fear experiencing a fear response. They perceive your fear responses as negative and go to great lengths to avoid them.

A phobia is a distortion of the normal fear response. Fear is directed towards an object or situation that does not present a real danger. While recognizing that the fear is unreasonable, you cannot avoid the reaction. Over time, the fear tends to get worse as the fear-to-fear response takes hold.

Differences between fear and phobia responses

causes of fear

Fear is incredibly complex and there is no single, primary cause.Some fears may be the result of experiences or trauma, while others may represent a fear of something else entirely, such as losing control. Still, other fears can occur because they cause physical symptoms, like being afraid of heights because they make you feel dizzy and nauseous.

Some common fear triggers include:

  • Certain objects or specific situations (spiders, snakes, heights, flyers, etc.)
  • future events
  • imagined events
  • real environmental hazards
  • The unknown

Certain fears tend to be innate and can be influenced evolutionarily because they help with survival. Others are learned and are linked to traumatic associations or experiences.

types of fear

Some of the different types of anxiety disorders characterized by fear include:

  • Agoraphobia
  • generalized anxiety disorder
  • Panic Syndrome
  • Post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD)
  • separation anxiety disorder
  • social anxiety disorder
  • specific phobia

List of phobias: common phobias from A to Z

fear treatment

Repeated exposure to similar situations leads to familiarity, which can drastically reduce the fear response. This approach forms the basis of somephobia treatments, which are based on slowly minimizing the fear response, making it familiar.

Phobia treatments based on the psychology of fear tend to focus on techniques such assystematic desensitizationand flooding. Both techniques work with your body's physiological and psychological responses to reduce fear.

systematic desensitization

Systematic desensitization involves being led gradually through a series of exposure situations. For example, if you are afraid of snakes, you could spend the first session with your therapist talking about snakes.

Slowly, over the next few sessions, your therapist would guide you through looking at pictures of snakes, playing with toy snakes, and finally handling a live snake. This is usually accompanied by learning and applying new coping techniques to manage the fear response.


This is one type of exposure technique that can be successful. Floods based on the premise that your phobia is a learned behavior and you need to unlearn it.

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With flooding, you are exposed to a large amount of the feared object or exposed to a feared situation for an extended period of time in a safe, controlled environment until the fear subsides. For example, if you're afraid of planes, you'd get on one anyway.

The goal is to get you past overwhelming anxiety and potential panic to a place where you have to face your fear and eventually realize that you're okay. This can help reinforce a positive reaction (you're not in danger) to a feared event (being in the sky on a plane), which will ultimately help you overcome the fear.

While these treatments can be very effective, it is important that these coping approaches are only undertaken with the guidance of a trained mental health professional.

dealing with fear

There are also steps you can take to help deal with fear in everyday life. These strategies focus on managing the physical, emotional, and behavioral effects of fear. Some things you can do include:

  • Get social support.Having supportive people in your life can help you manage your feelings of fear.
  • Practice mindfulness.While it's not always possible to avoid certain emotions, being mindful can help you control them and replace negative thoughts with more helpful ones.
  • Use stress management deep breathprogressive muscle relaxationand display.
  • Take care of your health.Eat well, exercise regularly, and get enough sleep each night.

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A Word from Verywell

Fear is an important human emotion that can help protect you from danger and prepare you for action, but it can also lead to longer-lasting feelings of anxiety. Finding ways to control your fear can help you better deal with these feelings and prevent anxiety from taking over.

If you or a loved one is struggling with fears, phobias or anxiety, contactSubstance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA) National Hotlineat 1-800-662-4357 for information about treatment and support centers in your area.

For more mental health resources, check out ourNational Database of Support Lines.

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Verywell Mind only uses high quality sources, including peer-reviewed studies, to support the facts in our articles. read ourpublishing processto learn more about how we fact-check and keep our content accurate, reliable, and trustworthy.

  1. Kozlowska K, Walker P, McLean L, Carrive P.Fear and the defense cascade: clinical implications and management.Harv Rev Psychiatry. 2015;23(4):263-287. doi:10.1097/HRP.0000000000000065

  2. Javanbakht A, Saab L.What Happens in the Brain When We Feel Fear?. Smithsonian.

  3. National Alliance for Mental Illness.anxiety disorders.

  4. Adolfo R.The biology of fear..Curr Biol.2013;23(2):R79-93. doi:10.1016/j.cub.2012.11.055

  5. Craske MG, Treanor M, Conway CC, Zbozinek T, Vervliet B.Maximization of exposure therapy: an inhibitory learning approach.Behave Nothing Ther. 2014;58:10–23. doi:10.1016/j.brat.2014.04.006

  6. Samra CK, Abdijadid S.specific phobia. StatPearls Publication.

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What is the psychology behind fear? ›

Fear is a natural, powerful, and primitive human emotion. According to psychology research, it involves a universal biochemical response and a high individual emotional response. Fear alerts us to the presence of danger or the threat of harm, whether that danger is physical or psychological.

What are the four types of fear responses? ›

The freeze, flop, friend, fight or flight reactions are immediate, automatic and instinctive responses to fear. Understanding them a little might help you make sense of your experiences and feelings.

What happens in the brain when we feel fear reading answers? ›

In response to fear, your brain releases biological molecules that: Increase your heart rate and blood pressure. Accelerate your breathing. Hyperfocus your attention.

What makes us just frightened enough? ›

When it perceives a threat, the amygdala triggers nervous responses and stimulates the production of hormones that affect the body. It's also connected to the hippocampus, where we store our memories, so that it can remind us to be afraid when we encounter the same threat again.

What emotion is under fear? ›

Fear: anxiety, apprehension, nervousness, dread, fright, and panic.

What are the 7 stages of fear? ›

According to Soukup's study, the fear archetypes include: The Procrastinator, the Rule Follower, the People Pleaser, the Outcast, the Self-Doubter, the Excuse Maker, and the Pessimist.

How do you break a fear response? ›

Learning relaxation techniques can help you with the mental and physical feelings of fear. It can help just to drop your shoulders and breathe deeply. Or imagine yourself in a relaxing place. You could also try learning things like yoga, meditation or massage.

Is fear a trauma response? ›

Fear and anxiety are a normal response to trauma. Due to avoidance, sometimes fear does not extinguish. PTSD can be conceptualized as a disorder of extinction. Fear structures contain information about the feared stimuli, the fear responses, and the meaning.

How do you reset your amygdala? ›

You can do this by slowing down, taking deep breaths, and refocusing your thoughts. These steps allow your brain's frontal lobes to take over for the irrational amygdala. When this happens, you have control over your responses, and you won't be left feeling regret or embarrassment at your behavior.

What triggers fear in the brain? ›

Fear starts in the part of the brain called the amygdala. According to Smithsonian Magazine, “A threat stimulus, such as the sight of a predator, triggers a fear response in the amygdala, which activates areas involved in preparation for motor functions involved in fight or flight.

What chemical in the brain causes fear? ›

Adrenaline is the hormone released when your brain perceives excitement, danger, fear, or a potential threat.

How can I train my mind to overcome fear? ›

8 Successful Mental Habits to Defeat Fear, Worry, and Anxiety
  1. Don't figure things out by yourself. ...
  2. Be real with how you feel. ...
  3. Be OK with some things being out of your control. ...
  4. Practice self-care. ...
  5. Be conscious of your intentions. ...
  6. Focus on positive thoughts. ...
  7. Practice mindfulness.
Apr 3, 2018

Why does fear make us weak? ›

If failure becomes unacceptable, fear will keep people from taking on difficult work, and focus on easier, low-risk work. This ultimately undermines our ability to achieve great things. If one does not focus on attempting to achieve great things, the great things simply will not happen.

Why does fear make you weak? ›

Fight or Flight During the fight or flight response, anxiety causes several changes in the body. These include an increased heart rate, higher blood pressure, faster breathing, and changes in blood flow. One of the effects of these changes is the sensation that the muscles are weakened.

What emotion is stronger than fear? ›

Love is stronger than fear, but fear will win out unless we allow love to empower sacrificial action in the world. Love is stronger than fear, but only if we participate in love. Only as we entrust ourselves to love. Only as we allow love to nourish us.

What do people fear the most? ›

The top 10 fears found in the 2022 survey suggest that Americans' fears center on five main topics: corrupt government officials (number 1), harm to a loved one (numbers 2 & 4), war (numbers 3, 5, & 10), environmental concerns (numbers 6 & 9), and economic concerns numbers 7 & 8).

Where is fear stored in the body? ›

Fear is experienced in your mind, but it triggers a strong physical reaction in your body. As soon as you recognize fear, your amygdala (small organ in the middle of your brain) goes to work. It alerts your nervous system, which sets your body's fear response into motion.

What are the 5 steps to conquer fear? ›

Here are the five necessary steps for converting fear into courage.
  • STEP 1: ACCEPT IT. PHIL: Fear never goes away. ...
  • STEP 2: IDENTIFY IT. BARRY: To leverage fear into courage, you have to be honest with yourself every time you're afraid. ...
  • STEP 3: FEEL IT. ...
  • STEP 4: FACE IT. ...
Aug 28, 2022

What are the four steps to overcoming fear? ›

Here are four steps to help you embrace your fear of failure and get what you want.
  • Identify what you want. When you are overcome with fear, this is the time to pause. ...
  • Realize what is stopping you from reaching what you want. ...
  • Own your discomfort. ...
  • Start feeling comfortable with the uncomfortable.
Jun 28, 2018

What is the core of fear? ›

(Note: There are five core fears, or “universal themes of loss,” that capture the basic interpretations of danger that we all make. They are 1) fear of abandonment, 2) loss of identity, 3) loss of meaning, 4) loss of purpose and 5) fear of death, including the fear of sickness and pain.)

What are the three biggest fears? ›

But here's the thing to remember about fear: It is a natural, human response to encountering something unfamiliar, challenging or uncertain.
The 3 biggest fears that hold people back in life, according to an emotional wellness coach
  1. Fear of failure. ...
  2. Fear of not being good enough. ...
  3. Fear of disappointing others.
Feb 10, 2022

What are the two rules of fear? ›

Rule #1. The very fact you fear something is solid evidence that it is not happening. Rule #2. What you fear is rarely what you think you fear, it is what you link to fear.

What are the 4 primal fears? ›

Facing their fear of identity loss (ego-death), the shame of troubling others (loss of autonomy), fear of losing loved ones or loved ones losing them (separation), and the fear of death itself (extinction), their journeys tap into and explore humanity's primal fears.

Can fear be removed from the brain? ›

Summary: Newly formed emotional memories can be erased from the human brain, according to new research. The findings may represent a breakthrough in research on memory and fear. Newly formed emotional memories can be erased from the human brain.

What are the three steps to overcome fear? ›


First, write down all your fears and the things causing anxiety. Second, brainstorm solutions for each one. Don't obsess over the fears, but think of the solutions. Finally, start acting on the solutions and get rid of the negative thoughts.

Is fear a defense mechanism? ›

The fear-defense system is an innate system organizing hard-wired species-typical defensive responses to threats that promote survival [14,24,29]. The activation of the defensive behavior starts with an arousal reaction processed by the amygdala occurring without conscious awareness [24,27].

Is fear a neurotic response? ›

Fear processing seems mainly under the influence of neuroticism. This modulation of autonomic activity by neurotics in response to threat/fear may explain their increased vulnerability to anxious psychopathologies such as PTSD (post traumatic stress disorder).

Can fear traumatize you? ›

Stress and fear, in response to actual or possible threat, enhances the possibility of forming trauma-related memories leading to post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD).

What are the 4 F's of fear free? ›

Fear is an emotional state that when a dog/animal feels threatened or scared by a trigger, the four fear responses, flight, fidget, freeze or fight through a physiological and sensory nervous system response (SNS) to protect them from danger.

What are the four 4 components of fear anxiety? ›

The Four Fear Responses: Fight, Flight, Freeze, and Fawn
  • The emotion of fear is a core part of human experience. ...
  • The human experience of fear begins in the amygdala, the part of the brain that processes many of our emotions.
Oct 26, 2021

What are the 4 trauma responses? ›

The mental health community broadly recognizes four types of trauma responses:
  • Fight.
  • Flight.
  • Freeze.
  • Fawn.
Feb 3, 2022

How do you break free from fear? ›

4 Steps to Breaking Free from Fear
  1. Face your fears. If you do not address your fears, they can accumulate with time. ...
  2. Acknowledge your fears. ...
  3. Communicate with your fears. ...
  4. Find a way to release fear. ...
  5. Be yourself. ...
  6. Invent yourself. ...
  7. Love and be loved. ...
  8. Flip the anxiety switch off.
Jun 26, 2019

What is the fear hormone called? ›

Adrenaline (epinephrine) is a hormone your adrenal glands send through your bloodstream. When you're scared or stressed suddenly, adrenaline is quickly sent into your body.

What is the No 1 fear in the world? ›

Social phobias are the most common type of fear. They are considered an anxiety disorder and include excessive self-consciousness in social situations. Some people can fear being judged so much they avoid specific situations, like eating in front of others. Up to one in 20 people have a social phobia.

What do humans fear most? ›

Let us know!
  • Going to the dentist. ...
  • Snakes. ...
  • Flying. ...
  • Spiders and insects. ...
  • Enclosed spaces Fear of enclosed spaces, or claustrophobia, plagues most people, even those that would not readily list it as their greatest fear. ...
  • Mice. ...
  • Dogs. ...
  • Thunder and Lightning.
Dec 7, 2022

What are the two fears we are born with? ›

We are born with only two innate fears: the fear of falling and the fear of loud sounds. A 1960 study evaluated depth perception among 6- to14-month-old infants, as well as young animals.

What are the 3 E's of trauma? ›

The keywords in SAMHSA's concept are The Three E's of Trauma: Event(s), Experience, and Effect. When a person is exposed to a traumatic or stressful event, how they experience it greatly influences the long-lasting adverse effects of carrying the weight of trauma.

How does childhood trauma manifest in adults? ›

Childhood trauma in adults also results in feeling disconnected, and being unable to relate to others. Studies have shown that adults that experience childhood trauma were more likely to struggle with controlling emotions, and had heightened anxiety, depression, and anger.

Why do clients smile when talking about trauma? ›

Smiling when discussing trauma is a way to minimize the traumatic experience. It communicates the notion that what happened “wasn't so bad.” This is a common strategy that trauma survivors use in an attempt to maintain a connection to caretakers who were their perpetrators.


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