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The Psychology behind Fear

John was on a road trip with his family when he noticed the truck ahead of him lost control of its breaks. While the truck driver attempted to swerve across the road, It tumbled over and its content spilt and rolled fast toward John’s car. John quickly swerved off that lane, getting control of his steering wheels and coming to a halt slowly by the curb.

Fear was the element at work here. However primitive fear is, it is one of the most integral factors for survival. Fear alerts us to danger ahead, triggering physical and psychological changes in our bodies to help deal with or avoid imminent danger. It is normal for John to still have memories of the event that may cause him some panic in the subsequent days. It is also essential for John to reflect on this fearful experience to shape his decisions if a similar situation occurs but when is fear abnormal and when does fear become a bad thing?

Let’s find out.


The Basis of Fear


Fear is a complex phenomenon in psychology. Fear stimulates interplay of physical and emotional responses that culminate in the actions we take to combat impending danger.

These physical reactions to fear include increased heart rate to increase blood flow to the brain and muscles, Pupillary dilation to allow for sharp vision and increased respiratory rate to allow optimal oxygen delivery at that urgent moment. These reactions constitute the“flight or fight response” that prepares our body to either fight the harmful situation or run away.


This physical reaction involves the autonomic nervous system, meaning it does not require you to think before these changes occur. They are produced instinctively.


However, emotional responses are not automatic. These reactions vary between persons. For example, while some people may find dare-devil stunts extremely dangerous. Some people find it exciting.


The responses of both types of individuals in this situation will differ. One may feel an impending sense of doom while the other may get excited and creatively prevent any mishaps.


When Fear is Abnormal and the Psychology of Phobias


Our minds trigger a fear response when we are faced with potentially stressful situations. When the stressful situation passes, these fear responses resolve but form useful experiences that guide our decisions in a similar situation in the future.

This experience may also cause fear when John finds himself in a similar situation, but it is likely to be less intense. This is because repeated exposure to a similar stimulus leads to familiarity, lowering the intensity of the fear response.


However, in some people, the fear response lingers even long after the inciting situation. In many of these people, the fear response to that situation causes them to avoid any activity or person that reminds them or puts them in a similar situation for fear of experiencing the fear response.


So, If John decides to stop driving altogether because of this experience, it is considered an abnormal reaction to fear in psychology and this may result in anxieties that cause significant distress to his mental health. This is the psychology of phobias.


Fear of a fear response is the basis of most phobias. A man who got attacked in a narrow alley when he was younger may develop an abnormal fear of narrow places. So, in phobias, fear is directed to objects, people or situations that do not pose a real danger but that evoke the same fear responses. So such persons go out of their way to avoid these factors.


Treatment for Phobias


In addition to anti-anxiety medications, psychologists employ cognitive behavioural techniques that work by modifying the psychological basis of a patient’s phobias. Examples of these techniques include flooding and desensitization.


Flooding is a type of technique that exposes you to a vast quantity of the feared situation for a good amount of time in a safe environment until the fear diminishes. For instance, If you are afraid of heights, You may be placed on a safe elevated environment and allowed to stay there for a long time. The technique allows this feared stimulus to flood your senses so that you can confront the fear and learn better-coping skills.

Systematic Desensitization is almost similar but exposure to the feared situation is done gradually. If you have fear of heights, for instance, You may be allowed to first discuss your fears and then you are gradually exposed to increasingly tall heights.


Fear is a normal human response to danger and is critical for survival. However, it can take a turn for worse when we begin to fear the fear reaction itself; creating maladaptive behaviours that make us avoid harmless situations. Consider seeking professional support to address any fears or phobia you have which are impacting upon your functioning and how you lead your life.