What is Fear?

Updated: May 28, 2020

The word ‘fear’ presents quite a powerful picture so I decided to explore where the term came from, what triggers fear and how to control it. It's defined as an unpleasant emotion caused by the threat of danger, pain or harm is classed as ‘fear’. But is it possible that most of our fears are learned behaviours?

Consider your biggest fear...

Is it arachnophobia? The fear of spiders?

Or perhaps it’s acrophobia, the fear of heights.

With some phobias being more common than others, it seemed that perhaps fears were more of a learnt behaviour than a natural instinct. Science has confirmed this! Some amount of fear is natural instinct. It can be triggered in the ‘flight or fight’ response as our bodies prepare to do what they need to do.

According to recent research, even these essential fears appear to set in later in life. Take these findings with a pinch of salt but Scientists are saying that fear is adaptive. It is present to protect us and in particular, our ancestors. It was a form of protection which ensured they didn’t fall off cliffs or get eaten by larger animals. There are, it seems, only two fears which see to be inborn into humans. They are the fear of falling and that of loud noises. The reflexes to avoid these situations are adaptive behaviours which ultimately protect us from potential threats.

So… perhaps some behaviours are learnt and only couple innate, which parts of the brain are affected?

Well further research suggests that some fear won’t actually come out until the brain has matured and certain hormones have kicked in. I won’t bore you with the details of which particular hormones but often fears are only manifested once you’ve accumulated enough stress. So it might make sense now when you see adults more fearful of sitting on a rollercoaster than a young child. Perhaps, since they are more aware of the potential dangers and implications of sitting on crazy rides, their stress levels are significantly higher.

Ultimately, this triggers the phobia of roller coasters and you’ll find older people observing the people on the rollercoaster rather than sitting on it themselves. Even then, often they’ll have a stronger sense of fear for the people on the rollercoaster than the actual people on the ride will feel.

Did you know your body fears starvation? It makes sense. A lack of nutrients in your body can cause damage to the body, fatigue and tiredness. That’s why when we are really hungry, it is common to binge. The emotional part of the brain kicks into action and food is often eaten too quickly - and in quantities which are more than necessary. As a result, we are prone to excessive weight gain.

Whilst feeling fear from time to time is entirely human, I’d like to suggest you try to switch the feeling of fear to the feeling of excitement. This may seem a little wacky but believe it or not, it is the same emotions which trigger both excitement and fear - or nervousness. This might explain why you feel the strange sensation of ‘butterflies’ just before you’re about to sit an exam or do a presentation. You’re feeling two conflicting emotions and your body isn’t quite sure how to deal with it!

Fortunately, as modern humans we have the knowledge and power to change our responses and shift most of the fear to excitement. The first key to shift those emotions is to recognise what you’re feeling. Then, try to shift your thoughts to more positive ones. Go from “What if I make a mistake?” to “I will learn and improve in this new role”. Focus on the outcomes you want to create and they’ll be created.

Why don't you test yourself and explore your fears, after all it is "Do One Thing - Nothing To Fear Day", today (May 27)!

I hope you found exploring fear as fascinating as I did!

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