Reflections on Fear

Ph.D., CPsychol., AFBPsS, Health Professional

We all have fears. Fear is a universal and common emotional reaction, but it's also something of a puzzle. Fear varies in terms of its severity and its frequency. There appears to be different types and degrees of fear. As anyone with anxiety knows, it is fear that drives the emotion. So, I thought I'd use this SharePost to explore fear and its varieties a little further.

There's nothing quite like a war to study fear. You won't be surprised to learn that many observations and accounts of fear derive from situations of conflict. The logic of such observations is that there should be a clear and well established relationship between fear and danger, and there is - but not always. For example, some combat soldiers report high levels of fear in situations of minimal danger, yet experience low levels of fear at times of high threat to their lives. People who have lost a limb may calmly sit waiting for treatment and then faint at the sight of a needle.

Interesting though these accounts are, the fact is that most people's fears are removed from these levels of trauma and threat to their existence. Yet for many people fear exists in a very real way within the normally humdrum activities of daily living.

There are very many examples of research into fears, but to illustrate a point I've selected one undertaken in Vermont during the 1960s. It was a relatively early study and its aim was to both identify and classify common fears. Nearly 40 percent of respondents said they had at least a mild fear of snakes. This was closely followed by a fear of heights, but the number one fear in terms of severity was a fear of public places and transport (agoraphobia).

What I find interesting about such studies is the variety and nature of fears that people declare. Moreover, it is the consistency of these fears in contexts that appear not to merit fear, that both intrigues and puzzles. There is logic in fearing snakes in countries that have them, but not in countries that don't. Is it possible to be frightened of some thing or some event never previously encountered? The answer appears to be yes.

In fact people can develop the most intense fears of animals and insects that have never harmed them, or are actually incapable of harming them. This leads us to speculate on where such fears come from; are we born with fears or do we learn them?

We fear different things as we develop. The fears of childhood are generally quite different to those experienced by adults. Most fears reach their peak in early adulthood and then start to diminish, although older adults do seem to increase their fear of certain things (notably heights and water).

Is fear just another word for anxiety? Well, yes and no. Fears tend to be quite specific and have a clear focus. Anxiety has fear as part of the mix, but it is often free-floating and non-specific in origin. Fear is a reaction and a motivator and, whether we like it or not, is an important feature of the human condition.