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  • Writer's picturePatricia Faust

Why Do We Experience FEAR?

Updated: Oct 26, 2019

Our brain is all about protecting us and helping us survive. This is the hardwiring that we have received from our prehistoric ancestors. If they didn’t sense a threat or feel fear – they would not survive very long. Through our evolution, the people who understood fear survived to pass on their genes. “In passing along their genes, the trait of fear and the response to it were selected as beneficial to the race.” (Julia Layton, How Stuff Works).

Autonomic Fear Response

Our autonomic fear response protects us as much today as it did our prehistoric ancestors. We may not be running from an animal predator but our everyday fear of crime or a random terror attack more than fit the criteria for fear stimuli. Anticipating a fearful stimulus can actually provoke the same response as experiencing it. For example, the first time you flew in an airplane – were you white-knuckled because you were afraid you were going to crash? When we anticipate fear, we draw on either past experience or something we saw on TV or read in the paper. Chances are overwhelming that you will not be in an airplane crash, but your brain is primed for survival and sets off the fear response.

The evolutionary aspect of fear explains why there are common fears among us. A Gallup Poll conducted in 2005 reveals the most common fears of teenagers in the United States. These are the top ten:

1. Terrorist attacks

2. Spiders

3. Death

4. Failure

5. War

6. Heights

7. Crime/Violence

8. Being alone

9. The future

10. Nuclear war

Universal Fears

We carry most of these fears into adulthood. Then add fear of public speaking, going to the dentist, pain, cancer, and snakes to that list. I have to admit there are a few fears in that list that I suffer from. Many of us suffer from the same fears – are there such things as universal fears then? There are some studies that show that humans may be genetically predisposed - like snakes, or spiders that once posed a real danger to human beings. I am not a snake person! I lived near ponds growing up so I saw them, ran from them, and was terrified of them. That fear is still with me to this day even though I was never harmed by a snake. But the fear of snakes can be widespread – even for those who have never encountered one. This does make sense if you consider that fear is an evolutionary instinct embedded in our human consciousness – below our level of awareness. This is an autonomic response.

There are also specific fears that groups of people might experience. If you live in an urban area, your fear of being mugged would be more prevalent than someone who grew up in a rural area. The context of our life experiences shape our fears.

Experiencing fear is part of our life.

But when we are overcome with fearful thoughts constantly our quality of life diminishes. What can we do about our fears?

In an experiment designed to elicit the fear response, scientists, working with rats, paired a noise with an electric shock. This was a simple conditioning experiment. It didn’t take long for the rats to brace themselves for the shock after they heard the tone. The amygdala had now paired the sound with the shock and the fear response was created. The next part of the experiment was the process of fear extinction. So the researchers would sound the tone but they did not give the shock to the rats. After hearing the sound without experiencing the shock, the rats stopped fearing the noise.

Most behavioral therapies for fear extinction focus on exposure. Someone who has a fear of snakes would repeatedly go to a snake farm where they would increase their exposure to the snakes. Moving closer to the snakes and then finally being able to touch one, strengthens the memory that ‘snakes are not going to harm you’. This new memory will override the memory of fear in the amygdala. The fear still exists but the new memory overrides it. The original fear memory is hardwired in the subconscious – that is why it still exists even after conditioning.

What Are You Afraid Of?

Prevention magazine printed an article “What are you afraid of?: 8 secrets that make fear disappear. Here are the 8 tips for dealing with everyday fear:

1. It doesn’t matter why you’re scared. Knowing why you’ve developed a particular fear doesn’t do much to help you overcome it, and it delays your progress in areas that will actually help you become less afraid. Stop trying to figure it out.

2. Learn about the thing you fear. Uncertainty is a huge component of fear: Developing an understanding of what you’re afraid of goes a long way toward erasing that fear.

3. Train. If there’s something you’re afraid to try because it seems scary or difficult, start small and work in steps. Slowly building familiarity with a scary subject makes it more manageable.

4. Find someone who is not afraid. If there’s something you’re afraid of, find someone who is not afraid of that thing and spend time with that person. Take her along when you try to conquer your fear – it’ll be much easier.

5. Talk about it. Sharing your fear out loud can make it seem much less daunting.

6. Play mind games with yourself. If you’re afraid of speaking in front of groups, its probably because you think the audience is going to judge you. Try imagining the audience member naked – being the only clothed person in the room puts you in the position of judgment.

7. Stop looking at the grand scheme. Think only about each successive step. If you’re afraid of heights, don’t think about being on the fortieth floor of a building. Just think about getting your foot in the lobby.

8. Seek help. Fear is not a simple emotion. If you are having trouble overcoming your fear on your own, find a professional to help you. There are lots of treatments for fear out there, and no good reason not to try them under the guidance of someone with training and experience.

One more thought about fear. Our brains are very malleable. They adapt to our environment – good or bad. This is neuroplasticity. If the noise all around you is filled with threats and promoting fear – your brain will pick that up and you will be more fearful. Remember – our brain is all about keeping us alive. Clear the noise – turn off the TV, don’t listen to the news, don’t read the paper. Don’t live in fear because that is all we hear and see. We deserve more than that. Go outside, take deep breaths, walk in nature – these practices will calm the fear/threat response. If you have awareness of what is triggering your fear – replace it with positive thoughts and memories. The fear response is hardwired – it will never go away. It is up to us to find practices that will override it. We have the power to live a fearless life.


Layton, J. How Fear Works. Retrieved January 31, 2017 from

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