Overestimating Fear

Jerry Kennard Health Pro
  • During the years of the great depression it was Franklin D. Roosevelt who famously commented, "the only thing we have to fear, is fear itself."  The context and the timing of his remark is important in any understanding of fear. Fear is a universal emotion that varies in range, frequency and severity. It can be helpful or it can unhelpful. We can also underestimate or overestimate our fears.


    Is underestimating fear worse than overestimating it? Perhaps one is as bad as the other, but there are differences between the two. An underestimation of fear could certainly lead to situations that are really quite dangerous. The effect on the individual is likely to be both large and immediate! For people with anxiety-related issues, the situation is different. One of the common problems they experience is an overestimation of fear.

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    Because over-predicting fear is more pervasive it tends to be more disruptive in the everyday lives of those affected. In normal circumstances the relationship between fear and threat tend to correspond. In other words, as the threat level increases so does the fear. Fearful people react differently and this is partly due to the fact that the feared situation is usually quite harmless and commonplace.


    Similar patterns of behavior are found in people who suffer from panic episodes. According to professor Stanley J. Rachman, a leading authority in anxiety and related disorders, predictions of panic tend to decrease after overestimations and tend to increase after under-predictions. Yet, predictions of future panic tend to remain unchanged after a person has correctly predicted panic, or no-panic.


    Fear is a combination of dread, physiological changes, and a strong desire to avoid or escape. It is both a reaction and a motivating force. Fear may be rational as in behavior designed to avoid injury or trauma, or it may be irrational, as is the case in most phobias.


    The over-prediction of fear is closely linked to avoidance behavior. People with agoraphobia, for example, both overestimate fear and use extensive avoidance behavior. What is interesting is the fact that if exposed to the feared situation, the person often surprises themselves by the finding they are neither as scared nor as anxious as they previously predicted. This is the basis of the treatment for such a condition. Repeated exposure to a feared situation tends to be accompanied by a decrease in the sense of fear.

Published On: January 11, 2009