Fear definition psychology

Fear: Definition, Symptoms, Examples, & Tips

Fear: Definition, Symptoms, Examples, & Tips

By Charlie Huntington, M.A., Ph.D. Candidate
Reviewed by Tchiki Davis, M.A., Ph.D.

What is fear? Learn the definition of fear, read about symptoms and examples of fear, and discover how to overcome fear.

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​Fear is a universal human experience, one that most of us don’t look forward to. What’s the point of feeling fear? How do you know you’re afraid? How might you deal with fear when it arises? Read on to learn more about the nature of fear and how you can deal with it.

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What Is Fear? (A Definition)

Put simply, fear is the experience we have when we feel threatened (Adolphs, 2013). Whether the threat is an upcoming performance review at work, the steep slope of a mountain you’ve chosen to ski down, or the sound of footsteps behind you at night, fear is a full-body, stressful experience of anticipating something bad might happen. We usually think of fear as an emotion (Thomson, 1979), but as we will see, scientists also define fear according to the thoughts, behaviors, and changes in our bodies that happen when we feel fear (Buck, 1984; Ekman, 1977).

The opposite of fear
Many wise people have contemplated what the opposite of fear is, and they have generally chosen something such as faith, hope, courage, confidence, or trust (Gray, 2021; Konstan, 2005; Piscitelli & Perrella, 2017). This range of responses makes sense if we think about it for a moment: if fear is the belief that you are in danger, a fully opposite experience would not just involve the absence of fear, but also believing that something good will happen.

What Is Fear in Psychology? (Research Findings)

Fear in the body
When something frightens you, your conscious experience of it may be a combination of physical symptoms (more on these in a moment) and fearful thoughts. Psychologists and other scientists, however, think of a fear as a response your body makes to something threatening, with the goal of defending you against it (Johnson, 2016). Parts of your brain that focus on detecting threat go on high alert, telling the rest of your body to flood with hormones and prepare you to react effectively (LeDoux, 2003). This high-alert response involves many changes in your body.

Fear in the mind
Psychologists also measure fear by looking at how frequent, intense, and long-lasting the thoughts are about the threatening event (Rachman et al., 1987). To take an example, most people who are about to have surgery done will have some fearful thoughts regarding negative outcomes. However, if those thoughts come up so frequently or are so difficult to ignore that they make it hard for somebody to go about their daily life, then they may need professional help coping with that fear.

Fear in our behavior
When we face something threatening, we try to respond adaptively. All of the ways we behave in the face of fear function to help us stay safe (Adolphs, 2013). As you may have heard before, most animals, including humans, respond to frightening circumstances with some version of “fight” (e.g., getting ready to meet the threat head-on), “flight” (e.g., getting ready to run away and avoid the danger), or “freeze” (e. g., shutting down so that the threat may pass you by) (Bracha et al., 2004). 

As a therapist who works with couples, I have seen all three types of responses when my clients are afraid. When one partner voices a criticism or an unmet need, I have seen the other partner object defensively (i.e, “fight”), change the topic (i.e., “flight”), or simply sit in silence and not respond (i.e., “freeze”).   

Fear Symptoms

The following physical symptoms are common in fear responses. You have likely experienced all of these at one point or another – I know I have:

Common Symptoms of Fear

  • Rapid heartbeat
  • Sweating
  • Trembling
  • Shortness of breath
  • Wobbly legs
  • Dizzy or lightheaded
  • Feeling of choking
  • Indigestion
  • Chest pain
  • Getting chills
  • Flushed face
  • Dry mouth

​In addition, to these physical symptoms, people often report feeling overwhelmed, out of control, nervous, or numb, when they are afraid (Beck & Steer, 1993).

Fear vs Anxiety

We often use the words “fear” and “anxiety” as if they are pretty much the same thing. However, researchers and psychologists have distinct definitions for each word. Fear is an immediate and automatic response to something threatening in your environment. If you respond effectively to the fearful situation, you may not fear it as much next time. However, if you don’t resolve or get out of the fearful situation, you learn to worry about that situation happening again. That’s how anxiety develops. In other words, anxiety results from being in fearful situations that you don’t think you can handle (Beck & Emery, 2005; Ohman, 2008).

Fear Examples

While our minds may be drawn to vivid examples of fear, such as the phobias that keep people from flying, receiving an injection, or touching spiders, small moments of fear happen for us most every day. Driving home out of the mountains on a recent snowy day, I had several such experiences. Skidding on an icy patch of road, I feared hitting the guardrail or going through it. Seeing a police car behind me, I felt a flash of fear wondering if I’d left my wallet at home. Now driving very slowly, I saw the cars lining up behind me and began to fear that they would be angry at my cautious driving. ​

Fear Causes

All of our fears are either learned or innate. For example, from infancy we fear being alone – being alone means not having the resources to survive. As we grow older, we learn to fear similar situations as well. So while they may not seem the same, making a joke that nobody laughs at and being left alone in my crib as a baby can actually evoke the same fear in me – namely, that I will be left alone.

This video provides another good example of how our fears are both intrinsic and a consequence of the experiences that we have. It also shows us how our fears can get more extreme over time – and how we can reverse that pattern.

Video: What Causes a Fear of Heights?

Disorders That May Include Fear

Fear is one of the basic human emotions (Ekman, 1992), so it should not surprise us that having too much fear – or too little fear – is an aspect of many psychiatric disorders. People with phobias have unhelpfully strong fear reactions to specific contexts. People with posttraumatic stress disorder (PTSD) react with great fear to things in the present that remind them of traumatizing events from their past, even if what they’re facing in the present is not actually a threat to them (Maren et al., 2013). People with anxiety disorders fear the situations that their anxious thoughts focus on. And people who fear intimacy may experience depression and anxiety and can end up with a lack of close relationships by engaging in compulsive or addictive behaviors (Thorberg & Lyvers, 2006).

On the other hand, one of the defining characteristics of people who meet criteria for psychopathy or sociopathy is an unusually small fear response (Birbaumer et al. , 2005). While some people might see this lack of fear as an advantage, there are severe limitations to not feeling fear when one should. People who feel too little fear are at risk of putting themselves and others in dangerous situations, which eventually leads to significant legal consequences or harm.

Fear Treatments

Hundreds of studies have shown that the most effective way to treat fear is to expose oneself to fearful situations (McLean et al., 2022). Exposure therapy, as this is called, can look several different ways. People who fear specific situations work with a therapist to face those situations in progressively more fearful ways. For example, somebody who is afraid of spiders might first read about spiders, then look at a picture of a spider, then watch a video of spiders, then sit across the room from a spider in a cage.

Another technique, which is more commonly used to support people with PTSD, is to practice intentionally focusing on events that were especially scary (McLean et al. , 2022). As people practice writing out and reading out loud the stories of what has happened to them, in a safe and therapeutic context, they begin to have less fear that such a situation will happen again.

Coping With Fear

All of us will continue to experience fear throughout our lives. You could not eliminate all your fears even if you tried! Fear is a built-in mechanism for keeping us safe. For this reason, it is much more effective to focus on coping effectively with fears than to aspire to become fearless. In fact, you could even welcome fear when it arrives in your life - accepting that it will inevitably show up makes it easier to deal with.

Tips & Techniques for Overcoming Fear

Knowing this, we can practice talking back to our fears. Engaging the more “logical” side of our brains can help us reduce our fear response. For example, I have been learning to rock climb for the last year. Every time I climb, as I approach the limits of my physical strength, I become afraid of falling and dying. Before the emotional and physical responses of fear take over, I have to re-engage my thinking brain. I remind myself that nobody has ever died at this climbing gym, that the rope holding me up can support 2000 pounds, that my partner is watching me and knows how to keep me safe. 

My fear of heights is innate and important – without all these protections in place, letting go of the wall would mean dying. But I am actually safe, and once I remind myself of that, I can keep climbing. 

We can also overcome fear by consciously regulating our bodies. Taking deep breaths, consciously relaxing our muscles, and even imagining ourselves in a less stressful situation can reduce fear.

Articles Related to Fear

Want to learn more? Here are some related articles that might be helpful.

  • Three Ways to Overcome Fear of Failure
  • Letting Go: How to Put The Past, Anger, & Fear Behind You
  • Negative Emotions: List & 158 Examples (+ PDF)
  • ​Self-Sabotage: Definition, Behaviors, & How to Stop
  • ​​Eustress: Definition, Causes, & Characteristics​​

Books Related to Fear

To keep learning, here are some books to explore:​​

  • Why Zebras Don't Get Ulcers
  • Fear: Essential Wisdom for Getting Through the Storm
  • The Gift of Fear
  • Feel the Fear . . . and Do It Anyway

Final Thoughts on Fear

As I hope I’ve made clear, fear is an essential human emotion, an evolutionary gift designed to keep us safe from harm. Your fears are natural and they are trying to help you. It’s up to you to decide whether to heed each fear or try to overcome it. I hope this article has helped you understand when and how to do that.

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  • Adolphs, R. (2013). The biology of fear. Current Biology, 23(2), R79-R93.
  • Beck, A. T., & Emery, G. (2005). Anxiety disorders and phobias: a cognitive perspective. New York: Basic Books.
  • Beck, A. T., & Steer, R. A. (1993). Beck anxiety inventory manual. San Antonio: Psychological Corporation.
  • Birbaumer, N., Veit, R., Lotze, M., Erb, M., Hermann, C., Grodd, W., & Flor, H., (2005). Deficient fear conditioning in psychopathy: A functional magnetic resonance imaging study. Archives of General Psychiatry, 62, 799–805. 
  • Bracha, H. S., Ralston, T. C., Matsukawa, J. M., Williams, A. E., & Bracha, A. S. (2004). Does “fight or flight” need updating? Psychosomatics, 45(5), 448-449.
  • Buck, R. (1984). The communication of emotion. New York: Guilford Press.
  • Ekman, P. (1977). Biological and cultural contributions to body and facial movement. In J. Blacking (Ed.), A.S.A. monograph 15, the anthropology of the body (pp. 39–84). London: Academic Press. 
  • Ekman, P. (1992). Are there basic emotions? Psychology Review, 99, 550–553.
  • Gray, C. H. (2021). Virus is a language: COVID-19 and the new abnormal. Cultural Politics, 17(1), 92-101.
  • Johnson, L. R. (2016). Editorial: how fear and stress shape the mind. Frontiers in Behavioral Neuroscience, 10, 00024.
  • Konstan, D. (2005). The emotions of the ancient Greeks: a cross-cultural perspective. Psychologia, 48, 225-240.
  • LeDoux, J. (2003). The emotional brain, fear, and the amygdala. Cellular and Molecular Neurobiology, 23, 727–738.​
  • Maren, S., Luan Phan, K., & Liberzon, I. (2013). The contextual brain: implications for fear conditioning, extinction and psychopathology. Nature Reviews Neuroscience, 14, 417-428.
  • McLean., C. P., Levy, H. C., Miller, M. L., & Tolin, D. F. (2022). Exposure therapy for PTSD: a meta-analysis. Clinical Psychology Review, 91, 102115.
  • Öhman, A. (2008). Fear and anxiety: Overlap and dissociation. In M. Lewis, J. M. Haviland-Jones, & L. Feldman Barrett (Eds.), Handbook of emotions (3rd ed., pp. 709–729). New York, NY: Guilford Press. 
  • Piscitelli, A., & Perrella, A. M. L. (2017). Fear of crime and participation in associational life. The Social Science Journal, 54(2), 179-190.
  • Rachman, S., Levitt, K., & Lopatka, C. (1987). Panic: the links between cognitions and bodily symptoms – I. Behaviour Research and Therapy, 25(5), 411-423.
  • Thomson, R. (1979). The concept of fear. In W. Sluckin (Ed.), Fear in animals and man (pp. 1–23). New York: Van Nostrand Reinhold.
  • Thorberg, F. A., & Lyvers, M. (2006). Attachment, fear of intimacy and differentiation of self among clients in substance disorder treatment facilities. Addictive Behaviors, 31(4), 732-737.

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Fear | Psychology Today


Reviewed by Psychology Today Staff

If people didn’t feel fear, they wouldn’t be able to protect themselves from legitimate threats. Fear is a vital response to physical and emotional danger that has been pivotal throughout human evolution, but especially in ancient times when men and women regularly faced life-or-death situations.

Today, the stakes are lower, but while public speaking, elevators, and spiders don’t present the same type of immediately dire consequences that faced early man, some individuals still develop extreme fight-flight-or-freeze responses to specific objects or scenarios.

Many people experience occasional bouts of fear or “nerves” before a flight, first date, or big game. But when someone’s fear is persistent and specific to certain threat, and impairs his or her everyday life, that person might have what’s known as a specific phobia.

  • Why People Feel Fear
  • Specific Phobias
  • Social Anxiety
  • Overcoming Fear

Why People Feel Fear

At least 60 percent of adults admit to having at least one unreasonable fear, although research to date is not clear on why these fears manifest. One theory is that humans have a genetic predisposition to fear things that were a threat to our ancestors, such as snakes, spiders, heights, or water, but this is difficult to verify, although people who have a first-degree relative with a specific phobia appear more likely to have the same one. Others point to evidence that individuals fear certain things because of a previous traumatic experience with them, but that fails to explain the many fears without such origins.

Personality traits such as neuroticism appear to increase one's likelihood of developing a phobia, and a tendency toward frequent worries and negative thoughts may also increase the risk, as may being raised by overprotective parents, losing a parent, or sexual or physical abuse. Most likely is that people follow multiple pathways to fears, not least among them the emotional response of disgust.

Did humans evolve to feel specific fears?

Throughout human history, certain animals, such as snakes and spiders, have caused high numbers of deaths. Thus, some researchers believe, men and women may have evolved to carry an innate instinct to avoid such creatures, as it would deliver a survival advantage. Some studies have shown that it’s easier to condition people without apparent fears of any animals to fear snakes and spiders than to fear dogs or other “friendly” creatures. Studies of other primates show that they share humans’ fear of snakes, leading some to speculate that such fears themselves may have spurred the growth of primate intelligence overall, as humans and others evolved to avoid the dangers posed by such threats.

How do children learn fear?

Research shows that babies do not appear to show signs of fear until around 8 to 12 months of age, usually in response to new people or events, but they are less likely to show a fear of strangers when sitting on a parent’s lap. And while some fears may be innate in humans, many fears are learned, perhaps most commonly by seeing a parent react fearfully to an animal or situation, or to frequently warn a child about its dangers.

Why do people sometimes seek out scary experiences?

There are times when people actively pursue experiences that could scare them, like a roller coaster or a haunted house attraction. Some research suggests that even though these experiences can be truly frightening in the moment, they may also boost people’s moods: The scare response is sincere, but the quick reassurance of safety delivers an equally strong jolt of relief and enjoyment that may linger well after the experience.

What everyday fears can hold us back?

Some feelings commonly described as “fears” are not strictly phobias, but mental obstacles that limit people’s actions and decisions, often preventing them from making progress, such as the fear of failure, the fear of success, the fear of rejection, the fear of missing out, or the fear of commitment. These feelings of insecurity, unworthiness, or indecision can often be addressed in therapy.

Specific Phobias

A phobia is a distinct fear or anxiety about a certain object or situation, exposure to which consistently provokes fear or causes distress in the sufferer. The fear experienced is almost always disproportionate to the true danger the object or event poses, and people with specific phobias generally know there is no real reason to be afraid and that their behavior is not logical. However, they cannot avoid their reaction.

Phobias fall into five broad categories:

  • Fears of animals, such as fear of dogs (cynophobia), spiders (arachnophobia), or bugs (insectophobia or entomophobia). These fears, known as zoophobias, also include the fear of bats (chiroptophobia) and of snakes or lizards (herpetophobia).
  • Fears of the natural environment, such as a fear of heights (acrophobia) or of storms. These phobias also include fear of fire (pyrophobia) and fear of the dark (nyctophobia).
  • Fears related to blood (hemophobia), injury, and injection, such as a fear of needles (trypanophobia) or medical procedures including dentistry (dentophobia).
  • Situational fears, such as a fear of flying (aerophobia), a fear of public speaking (glossophobia), or a fear of riding in elevators, which is itself a type of fear of closed spaces (claustrophobia).
  • Others, such as a fear of vomiting or choking.

Phobias can manifest at any time, but tend to emerge in childhood or adolescence, and the symptoms are often lifelong. In some cases, exposure to the feared object or situation (the phobic stimulus) can cause full or limited panic attacks. As many as 9 percent of Americans annually experience a specific phobia, according to the DSM-5, and women are twice as likely as men to have a phobia. It’s not uncommon to have multiple phobias: three-quarters of individuals diagnosed with a specific phobia have more than one and the average sufferer has three. The onset of a phobia can sometimes be traced to a specific event, like surviving a plane crash or being attacked by a dog. But for many more people, the origin of the phobia remains unknown. Some people with a specific phobia change their lifestyles to avoid their triggers, moving to a region where certain animals are rare, for example, or where there is no subway.

To learn more about causes and treatments, see our Diagnosis Dictionary.

What is agoraphobia?

Agoraphobia is the fear of situations that would be difficult to escape from or from which it would be difficult to get help, such as being in a movie theater or subway car. People with agoraphobia may fear public transportation, open spaces such as bridges, enclosed spaces like elevators, crowded places like concerts, and being away from home in general. Sufferers may become highly distressed when they find themselves in such situations and will go out of their way to avoid them.

Why do many people have a fear of heights?

Fear of heights is a common phobia, and one that is often experienced intensely. In fact, the symptoms often mirror those of a panic attack, including trembling, sweaty palms, nausea, and dizziness. Some have this phobia because of a traumatic experience but research suggests that, for many others, this fear, and similar ones such as claustrophobia, is a consequence of being more acutely aware of their bodily sensations than others, and more likely to interpret those sensations as threatening, leading to negative thoughts about jumping, losing their balance, or having a heart attack.

Why do so many people fear public speaking?

It’s often stated that the fear of public speaking is the most common phobia. It isn’t; only about one in four people report experiencing it. But when those with glossophobia are asked to speak before a group, the fear can be paralyzing. People who generally experience high levels of anxiety may worry not only that their speech will be ineffective but that their anxiety will somehow undermine their performance. For others, there are plenty of other sources of discomfort, such as feeling unqualified to speak with expertise, worrying about being evaluated by higher-status colleagues, and, quite commonly, overestimating the stakes of their performance.

How can someone overcome the fear of public speaking?

Preparation, practice, support from others, and learning to put oneself in a calmer, more relaxed state can all help ease the fear of public speaking, but one of the most important steps people can take is to challenge their beliefs. Cognitive reframing of one’s worries—challenging beliefs about being boring, anxious, or uninformed and replacing them with more favorable, supportive, and, significantly, realistic statements can help someone gain confidence and more accurately perceive the level of threat.

Why do people fear clowns?

Clown-like characters have been a part of popular culture for centuries. Yet some people have always found them creepy, and about 2 percent of the population experiences coulrophobia, or a fear of clowns. The reaction may be due not just to news reports of crimes by people in clown masks or makeup, but to the ambiguity that even harmless clowns present. With painted-on, unchanging expressions, clowns’ emotions can be hard to read and their intentions may seem unpredictable. The phenomenon known as deindividuation, leads to further unease: Since the identities of the men or women behind the makeup are hidden, others may become fearful of what they might do under cover of anonymity.

Why do some women fear pregnancy and childbirth?

Tokophobia, or the fear of pregnancy and/or childbirth, is a longtime phobia but one that has only recently been seriously researched. It affects both women who have experienced pregnancy and those who have not. Sufferers can experience terror, panic, or intense disgust at the very idea of becoming pregnant, leading to difficulty in forming romantic relationships and depriving women of the family they sincerely desire to have. (Women who simply do not desire children do not have tokophobia.)

Can people fear being without their cellphones?

Nomophobia is a recently coined fear, with “nomo” standing in for “no mobile.” Researchers who have observed individuals experience intense anxiety, fear, or withdrawal when separated from their mobile phones (or even from mobile phone reception) believe the response is based on the devices’ primary function as a means of connection with close attachments like friends, partners, and relatives, and their role as “human attachment substitutes” because they carry photos, messages, and other cherished personal information.

Social Anxiety

Fear often takes forms other than specific phobias. For example, social anxiety disorder, which is also known as social phobia, entails a deep fear of other people’s judgment, evaluation, and rejection that limits sufferers’ enjoyment of life. Individuals with social anxiety may avoid situations in which they will be exposed to the scrutiny of others, such as giving a speech, eating in front of others, meeting new people, or engaging in group conversations.

To learn more, see Types of Anxiety.

Is social anxiety a form of depression?

No, but social anxiety can lead to depression, and vice versa. People who experience social anxiety may endure extreme unhappiness, self-doubt, and even hopelessness, symptoms which overlap with those of depression. But research on the two conditions reveals a core feeling of worthlessness, or feeling that one is undeserving, whether of happiness or of other people’s friendship. Addressing that symptom in therapy could help to address social anxiety before it triggers depression.

How can someone overcome social anxiety?

The techniques of cognitive behavioral therapy may help sufferers begin to overcome social anxiety. Practicing approaches to social situations through limited exposure, and beginning to question the internal stories that lead them to avoid others, can foster confidence in sufferers they are in fact the type of people who can handle social situations. Testing predictions that things will go wrong, to prove that they are incorrect, can further help people challenge anxious thoughts, as can learning to credit or reward themselves for steps toward socializing, as opposed to criticizing themselves unrealistically in post-mortems.

To learn more, see Social Anxiety Disorder.

Overcoming Fear

When fear disrupts or overtakes an individual's life, therapy can help. A core treatment for fears is exposure therapy, in which a therapist guides the client to gradually and repeatedly engage with the source of their phobia in a safe environment to help strip away the threat associated with it. For example, someone with a fear of flying may be prompted to think about planes, view pictures of planes, visit the airport, step onto a plane, and eventually complete a flight. Cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) is often applied in combination with exposure therapy, to help sufferers challenge and reframe their harmful beliefs.

Medication such as beta-blockers, which block adrenaline and lower heart rate and blood pressure, may be prescribed in the short-term, often when a feared situation is necessary or unavoidable, such as before a public speaking commitment.

What thought changes could help free people from their everyday fears?

Minding one’s thoughts, acknowledging their fears, and being present can go a long way toward managing everyday fears. The first step is to question the story behind a fear. When one’s mental predictions insist that something will go wrong or that an individual faces imminent danger, the ability to step back, recognize those thoughts as stories, and calmly evaluate whether they are true or rational can be a powerful step toward overcoming them.

Can fears be treated with virtual reality?

Using the technology of virtual reality to simulate exposure to fears has emerged as a useful therapeutic tool. Evidence suggests that Virtual Reality Graded Exposure Therapy (VRGET) can be especially helpful in addressing concerns like specific phobias, agoraphobia, and anxiety disorders. Patient outcomes appear to be no different in virtual and real settings, but VR may enable therapists to reach more people with accessible and affordable care.

How do some people successfully resist fears?

No one lives without fear, but those individuals perceived as courageous may respond to and manage their fears in ways that may offer models to others. First, they are not afraid to be afraid, knowing it’s a feeling that is sometimes unavoidable, and that it’s a feeling that can be useful when it’s recognized as an alert and not a barrier. With this knowledge, they can prepare without panicking, take action instead of shying away from it, and ask for help when their fears clue them in that it may be needed.

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What is fear?

Fear is an internal feeling that reflects a defensive reaction when experiencing a real or imaginary danger. In psychology, it belongs to the group of so-called negative or negative emotions - emotions that are based on unpleasant experiences or external influences.

One of the variants of fear is a phobia. It is an irrational, poorly controlled fear of an object, living being, or being in certain external circumstances. At the same time, a person tries with all his might to avoid contact with the source of his fear, even if he does not pose any objective threat.

Causes of fear

Fear is a natural response to a sense of danger, it helps to avoid getting into situations that threaten health and life.

Depending on the type of fear, it can be external circumstances or internal experiences. Most often, this emotion is caused precisely by the features of the environment - a closed space, height, darkness. Less often, fear is caused by a person's feelings about social interaction with parents, relatives or business partners.

The limbic system of the central nervous system, predominantly the left amygdala, is responsible for the development of fear. The process is implemented in two neural pathways: short and long. The first is responsible for a quick reaction to a potential danger, the second controls the adequacy of the response to the trigger and maintains or blocks a short path. Phobias arise when the work of the long path is disrupted. Also, a number of hormones take part in the formation of a feeling of fear, including cortisol, the “stress hormone”.

The most common variants of fears and phobias are:

  • Thanatophobia - fear of one's own death.
  • Stage fright - fear of speaking in front of a general public.
  • Cynophobia is the fear of dogs.
  • Acrophobia - fear of heights.
  • Nyctophobia - fear of the dark.
  • Claustrophobia is the fear of closed spaces.
  • Agoraphobia is the fear of being in places that cannot be quickly and easily left.
  • Arachnophobia is the fear of spiders.
  • Aviaphobia - fear of air travel.
  • Astralophobia - fear of thunderstorms.

Types of fear

In modern psychological practice, the classification of fears according to Yu.V. Shcherbatykh is used, which includes:

  • Social fears represented by fear of responsibility, public speaking, exams or important conversations.
  • Internal or existential fears that are created by the person himself, for example: fear of one's own thoughts and actions.
  • Separately, children's fears are distinguished, including the fear of being alone, fear of other people, doctors, fairy-tale images, etc.

    Signs of fear

    Fear affects both the physical condition of a person and his behavior and well-being. Its manifestations can vary depending on the degree of potential threat from minor anxiety to panic.

    State and feeling of fear

    Fear is accompanied by the production of a number of hormones - adrenaline, norepinephrine and cortisol. They allow you to prepare for a response to a threat by changing the mode of operation of the heart, lungs and systemic metabolism.

    The release of hormones puts the body on high alert: the blood supply to the muscles increases, the blood glucose level rises, and the brain concentrates only on potential danger. All this is accompanied by a number of somatic manifestations:

    • Increased heart rate and breathing.
    • Increased perspiration.
    • Dry mouth.
    • Pupil dilation.
    • "Tunnel" vision: a condition in which a person perceives visual information only about what he sees directly in front of him. Peripheral vision is then "turned off".
    • Inability to turn attention and thoughts to anything other than the source of fear.
    • Dizziness and loss of appetite.
    • General tension and increased muscle tone.
    • Increased reaction speed and decreased pain sensitivity.

    Mental reaction to fear in people is individual and depends on the strength of the emotion. Often people feel only physical changes and anxiety, their actions trying to avoid danger. With a sharp, sudden impact, a state of stupor and the inability to do anything is possible.

    A short-term feeling of fear is harmless. However, with a long stay in this state, negative consequences are formed, such as:

    • Sleep disturbance, insomnia.
    • Decreased libido.
    • Excessive irritability, aggressiveness.
    • Frequent headaches.
    • Decreased efficiency and loss of planning skills.

    Panic fear

    Sometimes fear goes beyond the boundaries of a physiological reaction and becomes excessively strong, and a person goes into a state of panic, losing control over himself and the situation. If at the same time the cause of the appearance of such a strong fear cannot be established, we are talking about a panic attack.

    Panic attack is accompanied by extremely unpleasant sensations. Photo by Alex Green: Pexels

    Often, panic attacks are preceded by physical and emotional overload, less often by sudden changes in hormonal levels. Most often they are associated with the following factors:

    • Chronic stress.
    • Strong emotional shock.
    • Long periods of sleep deprivation.
    • Excessive exercise.
    • Severe physical illness, such as cancer.
    • Pregnancy.

    Also, panic attacks can be a symptom of mental disorders, including: depression, psychopathy, hypochondria, schizophrenia, obsessive-compulsive disorder.

    Panic fear, unlike its other types, can cause symptoms resembling somatic diseases. Quite often this emotion is accompanied by:

    • A feeling of pain in the chest.
    • Shortness of breath, difficult breathing.
    • Feeling of numbness of the limbs.
    • Fuzziness, clouding of consciousness.
    • Loss of consciousness.

    Panic attacks last from a few minutes to 1-2 hours, averaging about 30 minutes. They are also characterized by periodicity, which can vary from 1-2 attacks per month to several per day.

    Fear of pain

    Algophobia or fear of physical pain is one of the common fears, which is often associated with previously experienced severe pain. In everyday life, it manifests itself when visiting medical institutions, dental offices.

    Algophobia is common in children. Photo: FanMU / Depositphotos

    Normally, a person tries to avoid harm to his health, which is often accompanied by pain. With algophobia, even the potential to feel pain causes strong fear with all its manifestations. An example is the fear of donating blood for laboratory tests because of the pain that accompanies skin puncture with a scarifier or syringe needle.

    Fear of being rejected

    Another fairly common fear is the fear of being rejected by society or a specific person. As a rule, it is formed against the background of previously gained experience of a painful break with a person or rejection, for example, in a family. There is also a hypothesis that it is associated with autism spectrum disorders (autism, Asperger's syndrome) and attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD).

    Negative experiences in the past can cause fear of being rejected by people. Photo by RODNAE Productions: Pexels

    Fear of rejection is especially sensitive to interactions with other people:

    • Constant expectation of deterioration in relationships and preparation for this.
    • Persistent feeling of disrespect, ridicule and criticism of oneself.
    • An overly strong reaction to breaking up with someone. In this case, the response can be both severe aggression and depression.

    When to see a doctor?

    Fear is not always useful, and in some cases it is recommended to seek help from a specialist. Reasons for seeking medical help may include:

    • Panic attacks, especially those that occur for no apparent reason.
    • Inability to engage in work or household activities and other daily activities due to fear and phobias.
    • Constantly being in a state of fear for no apparent reason.
    • Severe deterioration in physical condition due to fear.
    • The appearance of fear against the background of other somatic (for example, with bronchial asthma) or mental (schizophrenia) diseases.
    • Sleep disorders.

    If you have phobias, fears of specific things or circumstances, you should seek help from a psychologist or psychotherapist. It is also recommended to consult a specialist of this profile for groundless, but controlled fears.

    Before visiting a doctor, some preparation and analysis of your condition is recommended. They will simplify the process of diagnosis and choice of treatment tactics. It is useful to prepare the following data in advance:

    • All the symptoms that accompany the feeling of fear, even if they seem unrelated to the experienced emotions.
    • Triggers are things, people, factors or external circumstances that provoke feelings of fear and anxiety.
    • Reactions and ways to counteract fears and phobias, including the results of their application.
    • Previously experienced strong emotional upheavals or periods of stress.
    • A list of all drugs, food supplements and vitamins that are taken and their doses.

    Treatment of fears

    Treatment and struggle with pathological forms of fear may include both psychological methods and medical support. The purpose of the therapy is to reduce the frequency of unreasonable attacks of fear and their severity, as well as to prevent negative consequences for the body, control phobias.

    Cognitive Behavioral Therapy

    This is a form of talking therapy that seeks, analyzes and works through the person's thoughts and beliefs that potentially cause fears and underlying phobias. This therapy is based on the reinforcement of desired types and behaviors, which entails a change in emotions and thinking, leading to the development of fears.

    Over the course of a series of sessions, the psychotherapist helps to react in a structured way to situations and factors that cause a feeling of fear and to respond to them more effectively. The number of visits to the doctor can vary from 5 to 20 depending on the severity of the symptoms, the support of others and personal progress.

    Group sessions

    An effective approach to the treatment of fears is group therapy, in which people with similar problems communicate. It is believed that familiarity with the stories of others, especially if they successfully confront their phobias and have already achieved certain results, helps to better deal with personal experiences. It also allows you to get new tips and learn about new treatment tactics to choose the most suitable option for yourself.

    Classes in a group help to cope with fears. Photo: PsychotherapyNet / YouTube

    Medical treatment

    Psychotherapeutic approaches are considered the most effective. Drug treatment is used for severe symptoms of anxiety and fear that cannot be overcome in other ways.

    Depending on the individual's condition and concomitant factors, drugs may be prescribed as a short course at the beginning of therapy, or on an ongoing basis. To combat the feeling of fear and its consequences, the following groups of medicines are used:

    • β-blockers. These are drugs that block the effects on the body of hormones that are released during the experience of fear.
    • Tranquilizers, predominantly benzodiazepines. Directly suppress anxiety and fear. At the same time, they can be addictive and are not recommended for use in alcohol and drug addiction.

    Sleeping pills, antipsychotics and antidepressants can also be used for phobias and fears associated with psychiatric illness. However, such funds should not be used by a person on their own - they are prescribed only by a competent specialist after a comprehensive examination.

    How to get rid of fear?

    You can start confronting your fears and phobias on your own. To this end, a number of tips and recommendations have been developed. However, don't expect quick results - it's a long journey that always starts small.

    AWARE Technique

    One of the effective ways to get rid of fear is to study and accept it. For this purpose, a special AWARE technique (awareness) is used. This acronym stands for:

    • Accept - recognition. Acceptance of your fear, a kind of recognition to yourself. Often, already at this stage, the quality of human life is significantly improved.
    • Watch - observation, for the purpose of which you can keep the so-called "alarm diary". It should record all thoughts and feelings that accompany the episode of fear, factors and situations that provoke or aggravate it.
    • Act - action. Behavior control, it should be as if everything is normal, even if fear is present. For example, you should keep going to the place that causes unreasonable fear. This helps to suppress the over-emotional response.
    • Repeat - repetition. You should repeat the previous points on a regular basis, even if the first attempts seem to be unsuccessful.
    • Expect - waiting. Confidence in one's own abilities and that fear can be controlled gives even more self-confidence and helps to master one's phobias.

    Proper nutrition

    High blood glucose levels are associated with increased anxiety. Therefore, you should avoid a large amount of carbohydrate foods in the diet, giving preference to fresh fruits and vegetables.

    It is also recommended to limit the use of strong tea and coffee, as they are rich in caffeine, which can increase the level of emotional arousal and anxiety.

    Refusal of alcohol and smoking

    Despite the popular habit of drinking and smoking “for courage”, alcoholic beverages and tobacco products increase the level of excitation of the nervous system, thereby increasing anxiety and fear.


    Sports and exercise make a person concentrate, which allows you to distract from fears and worries. Also, being in good physical shape gives additional self-confidence, which contributes to the fight against internal experiences.


    One of the simplest approaches to dealing with fear is relaxation techniques. Even the usual deep breaths in and out help you pull yourself together and take control of the situation. You can also try to imagine yourself in a pleasant, relaxing place.

    Listening to your favorite music helps a lot. In the long run, massage, yoga, tai chi, and meditation can be effective.


    Fear helped our ancestors to survive and help us to avoid danger to this day. But you need to correctly interpret and control them, and with the pathological origin of such emotions and the inability to live a full life due to phobias, treat them using various approaches.


    1. Specific phobias. Mayo Clinic
    2. Panic Disorder - Symptoms. NHS (2014).
    3. How to overcome fear and anxiety? Mental Health Foundation
    4. Dorofeeva G.A. "Fears: definition, types, causes" Proceedings of the Southern Federal University. Engineering Sciences, vol. 28, no. 5, 2002, pp. 177-184.
    5. Smirnova, V. S., and O. A. Anisimova. "Phobias and fears of man". Youth and Science: Actual Problems of Pedagogy and Psychology 1 (2016): 158-160.

    Fear | is... What is Fear?

    This term has other meanings, see Fear (meanings).

    A child in a state of fear

    Fear is an internal state caused by a threatening real or supposed disaster. [1] From the point of view of psychology, it is considered a negatively colored emotional process. [2]


    • 1 Fear in psychology
      • 1.1 Fear in the psychology of communication
      • 1.2 Phobias
    • 2 Fear in culture
    • 3 Fear in man
    • 4 Degrees and types of fear
    • 5 Physiology
      • 5.1 Two neural pathways of fear
        • 5.1.1 Fast track
        • 5.1.2 Long way
    • 6 See also
    • 7 Notes
    • 8 Literature

    Fear in psychology

    From the point of view of psychology, fear is an emotional process. In the theory of differential emotions by K. Izard, fear is attributed to basic emotions , that is, it is an innate emotional process, with a genetically specified physiological component, a strictly defined mimic manifestation and a specific subjective experience. [3] Real or imagined danger is considered to be the cause of fear. Fear mobilizes the body to implement avoiding behavior, running away. [4]

    Fear in the psychology of communication

    Fear as a basic human emotion, signaling a state of danger, depends on many external and internal, innate or acquired causes. Cognitively constructed causes of fear: feeling of loneliness, rejection, depression, threats to self-esteem, a sense of imminent failure, a sense of one's own inadequacy. Consequences of fear: emotional states of uncertainty, strong nervous tension, prompting a person to flee, search for protection, salvation. The main functions of fear and the emotional states accompanying it are: signal, protective, adaptive, search. [5]


    Main article: Phobia

    Mental disorders in which certain situations or objects that are not dangerous cause anxiety and fear are called "phobias". [6]

    Fear in culture

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    It was the realization of the finiteness of one's existence, or, to put it crudely, the fear of death, that ritualized the life of primitive man. The ritual, leveling fears, made it possible to accumulate cultural information, improving the methods of its conservation. [ source not specified 517 days ] The ways, regulators and results of human existence have changed. Not the last role was played by fear in the emergence of the state. It can be said that one of the factors in the creation of communities was a complex of fears. The consequence of this complex was the desire to unite in order to fight together against the dangers.

    If we talk about religions that have occupied (and continue to occupy) such a significant place in human life, fear also occupies a key place in each of them. And here fear rises to the metaphysical level and includes not only the problem of life and death, but also the moral aspect. Death itself becomes a kind of border, a place of transition to another world. And how a person lived his life depends on what the other world will turn out to be for him. In this case, the represented source of fear is not in objective reality (that is, not in the surrounding world), but outside of direct knowledge. In a sense, it can be considered that fear had a great influence on the development of such a criterion as morality.

    Fear occupies a separate place in art and literature, such as: the genre of the gothic story (or gothic novel), the cinematic genre of the horror film. Epic and mythological folklore, folk superstitions are one of the most commonly used sources for these works.

    Human fear

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    The course of the emotion of fear in different situations in different people can vary significantly, both in strength and in influence on behavior.

    Fear can manifest as an agitated or depressed emotional state. A very strong fear (for example, horror) is often accompanied by a depressed state. In addition to the general term "fear", the terms "anxiety", "fright", "panic", "phobias", etc. are used for various negative emotional states that are close in nature. For example, a short-term and strong fear caused by a sudden strong stimulus is called "fright", and a long-term, mild, diffuse fear is called "anxiety".

    Psychiatric disorders such as phobias can cause a person to experience fear frequently and intensely. A phobia is an obsessive, irrational fear associated with a certain object or situation that a person cannot cope with on his own.

    Some philosophers, especially those who approach this phenomenon from purely moral positions, consider fear to be a harmful emotion with bad consequences. Other philosophers, especially those who view fear as a predominantly biological phenomenon, on the contrary, consider this state to be beneficial because it alerts to dangerous situations. Both points of view are not mutually exclusive, since the emotion of fear, like the sensation of pain, ensures the self-preservation of the individual, and becomes unproductive or dangerous only in the most intense and prolonged manifestations.

    Degrees and types of fear

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    Fear can be described in different terms depending on the severity: fright, horror, panic.

    Professor Yu. V. Shcherbatykh proposed his own classification of fears. [7] He divides all fears into three groups:

    • biological,
    • social,
    • existential.

    The first group includes fears that are directly related to the threat to a person's life, the second represents fears and fears for a change in one's social status, the third group of fears is associated with the very essence of a person, is characteristic of all people. Social fears are caused by situations that may pose a threat not to a person's life or health, but to his social status or self-esteem of the individual (fear of public speaking, social contacts, responsibility, etc.). Existential fears are associated with the intellect and are caused by reflections on issues affecting the problems of life, death and the very existence of a person. This is fear of death, of time, of the meaninglessness of human existence, and so on.

    Based on this principle, the fear of fire is in the first category, the fear of public speaking is in the second, and the fear of death is in the third. Meanwhile, there are also intermediate forms of fear, standing on the verge of two sections. These include, for example, the fear of disease. On the one hand, the disease has a biological nature (pain, damage, suffering), but on the other hand, it has a social nature (disconnection from normal activities, separation from the team, decrease in income, dismissal from work, poverty, etc.). Therefore, this fear is on the border of groups 1 and 2 of fears, fear of depth (when swimming) is on the border of groups 1 and 3, fear of losing loved ones is on the border of groups 2 and 3, etc. In fact, in every fear in that or otherwise, all three components are present, but one of them is dominant.

    It is human nature to be afraid of dangerous animals, situations and natural phenomena. The fear that arises about this is genetic or reflex in nature. In the first case, the reaction to danger is recorded at the genetic level, in the second (based on one's own negative experience) it is recorded at the level of nerve cells. In both cases, it makes sense to control the usefulness of such reactions with the help of reason and logic. It is possible that these reactions have lost their useful significance and only prevent a person from living happily. For example, it makes sense to be wary of snakes, and it is foolish to be afraid of spiders; one may reasonably be afraid of lightning, but not of thunder, which cannot cause harm. If such fears make a person uncomfortable, you can try to rebuild your reflexes.

    Fears that arise in situations dangerous to life and health have a protective function, and therefore are useful. Fear of medical manipulations can be harmful to health, as it will prevent a person from establishing a diagnosis or treatment in time.


    In a patient whose amygdala was destroyed due to Urbach-Wiethe disease, there was a complete absence of fear [8] [9] [10] .

    Two neural pathways of fear

    The development of the feeling of fear is determined by two neural pathways, which, ideally, function simultaneously. The first of them, responsible for the development of basic emotions, reacts quickly and is accompanied by a large number of errors. The second reacts more slowly, but more accurately. [11]

    Fast way

    The first way allows us to quickly respond to signs of danger, but often works as a false alarm. The second way allows us to more accurately assess the situation and respond to the danger more accurately. In this case, the feeling of fear initiated by the first way is blocked by the functioning of the second way, which evaluates certain signs of danger as not real.

    In the first path (low, short, subcortical), the emotional stimulus, reflected in the sensory nuclei of the thalamus opticus, closes on the amygdala nuclei of the thalamus, causing an emotional response.

    Long path

    In the second path (high, long, cortical), the emotional stimulus, reflected in the sensory nuclei of the thalamus, ascends to the sensory regions of the cerebral cortex and from there it is sent to the nuclei of the amygdala (almond-shaped) complex, forming an emotional response.

    In phobias, the second pathway does not function adequately, which leads to the development of a feeling of fear in response to stimuli that do not carry danger.

    See also

    • Pain
    • Alarm
    • Phobia
    • Neurosis
    • Psychoanalysis
    • Study
    • Statmin - "fear gene"


    1. Article "Fear" in Vladimir Dahl's Explanatory Dictionary of the Living Great Russian Language
    2. Leontiev, Alexey Nikolaevich. Needs, motives and emotions (Russian). - Moscow, 1971.
    3. Izard, Carroll Ellis The Theory of Differential Emotions // The Psychology of Emotions = The Psychology of Emotions. - Peter, 2007. - S. 54. - 464 p. - (Masters of Psychology). - 3000 copies. — ISBN 5-314-00067-9 ISBN 978-5-314-00067-0
    4. Izard, Carroll Ellis Fear and anxiety. // The Psychology of Emotions = The Psychology of Emotions. - Peter, 2007. - S. 292. - 464 p. - (Masters of Psychology). - 3000 copies. — ISBN 5-314-00067-9 ISBN 978-5-314-00067-0
    5. Goryanina V. A. Psychology of communication: Proc. allowance for students. higher textbook establishments. - M .: Publishing Center "Academy", 2002. - 416 p.
    6. International Statistical Classification of Diseases and Related Health Problems. 10th revision = International Statistical Classification of Diseases and Related Health Problems: Tenth Revision. - M .: Medicine, 2003. - T. 1-4. — 2440 s. - 2000 copies. — ISBN 5-225-03268-0, ISBN 5-225-03269-9, ISBN 5-225-03280-X
    7. Shcherbatykh Yu.V. Get rid of fear. - M.: Eksmo, 2011. - 304 p. ISBN 978-5-699-45683-3
    8. Feinstein, Adolphs, Damasio and Tranel The Human Amygdala and the Induction and Experience of Fear — Current Biology, Published online: December 16, 2010
    9. Richard Alleyne A woman with no fear could help traumatized soldiers — The Telegraph, 12/16/10
    10. A unique case: a woman lives in the USA who is not afraid - NEWSru.

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