What is Fear? Learn How To Slay Your Demons And Thrive

Updated January 2, 2022 by Iulian Ionescu | Read Time min.
fear emotion paralysis

As one of the most complicated words in any language, fear means many different things depending on the person, context, or time in history. But are there any common denominators that we can look at to understand and overcome fear? Are there any methods or tools we can employ to make it easier to push through our fears? Read on to find out.

The Psychology of Fear

fer emotionsSpecializing in the neurobiology of emotions, including fear, António R. Damásio, a Portuguese-American neuroscientist, once wrote, “We are not thinking machines that feel, we are feeling machines that think.” That sounds good but feels completely counterintuitive.

I believe most people, myself included, think of themselves as logical creatures. We all see ourselves as highly rational, and we like to think that we approach all situations in life from a calm, aloof place where we weigh all the options, analyze, and make decisions based on logic.

Of course, that makes a lot of sense because we all take pride in the unique feature that separates us from the rest of the animal kingdom—our conscience and ability to think critically and evaluate situations using our intellect.

It turns out it’s all wrong.

You see, our species evolved much like the rest of the animal kingdom, and as our brains upgraded generation after generation, the real differentiation appeared much later. Before we could think, we had to feel so we could stay alive and thrive as a species.

You can take any animal at any stage of their life, and you can observe their feelings and instinctual reactions to those feelings. Put your finger in front of an ant, and watch it go berserk trying to escape. Why? Because the ant feels the danger. I bet you would react the same way if a giant fingertip descended from the heavens and pressed onto the sidewalk in front of you.

I mean, you might look at it for a split second and think, but not for long, I’m sure.

You see, the oldest part of our brain, referred to as the “reptilian brain,” is where most of the functions of the body are encoded and controlled. Think of things such as breathing, heart rate, and body temperature. Your body must manage those properly to survive.

Next in line is the limbic brain, which is responsible for memory and emotions. That, my friends, is where most of our judgments come from and is the brain area that controls most of our behavior.

The last part of the brain, the neocortex, is also the newest for our species. That is where language, abstract thoughts, ideas, imagination, and consciousness live. That’s the place where we all would like to think most of our behavior stems from, but unfortunately, that is not the case.

What Are Emotions?

human emotionsAlthough there is no conclusive one-size-fits-all definition of emotion, because of the many layers that are involved in their constitution, emotion is usually defined broadly as a mental state. It’s associated with our nervous system, and it results from a variety of chemical reactions in our bodies that are a direct result of our thoughts, behaviors, events happening around us, and our interpretation of those events.

In their book, Discovering Psychology, authors Don and Sandra Hockenbury define emotion as a complex psychological state with three distinct components:

  1. A subjective experience
  2. A physiological response
  3. A behavioral or expressive response.

So in layman’s terms, something happens to you, you interpret it in a certain way inside your mind, and then you take some sort of action.

It is perhaps easier to understand emotions if we break them down into their types. Again, psychologists and philosophers have long thought and analyzed this subject, so there is no one singular way to split them. However, there are a few widely-accepted classifications.

Psychologist Paul Ekman suggested in 1972 that there are six basic emotions:

  • Fear
  • Disgust
  • Anger
  • Surprise
  • Happiness
  • Sadness

In 1980, Robert Plutchik, professor emeritus at the Albert Einstein College of Medicine, proposed what is known as the Wheel of Emotions. This classification ranks the intensity of each emotion and gives sub-emotions, which are generated by the interaction of two basic ones.

Regardless of the classification system, fear is always present as a primary emotion and probably one that we share most with the rest of the animal kingdom. So what is fear?

What is Fear?

your fears and impediments Much like there is significant difficulty in defining emotions precisely, identifying each emotion individually suffers from the same problem. Fear inherently affects all of us differently, but in the end, it’s always a combination of sensations and perceptions that lets us know that something is threatening us.

Our instinct for self-preservation is one of the most profound and deeply ingrained into our brains from ancient times. Also known as the survival instinct, psychology defines this concept as the fundamental tendency of humans (and nonhuman animals) to behave in a way that avoids injury and maximizes survival chances.

But, then, why do we feel a particular type of fear when we want to talk to somebody? For example, a member of the opposite sex in a bar? We know intellectually that they won’t hurt us physically, so the danger of non-survival is minimal. But our body interprets the fear of rejection generated by the situation as nothing but primal fear. However, as we will see shortly, fear targets all facets of our being, including emotionally and mentally, not just physically, like the rest of the animals.

Types of Fear

The Atlas of Emotions classifies fear into eight different intensities, as shown in the chart below:

fear emotion scale

  1. Trepidation – the anticipation of the possibility of danger
  2. Nervousness – uncertainty as to whether there is danger
  3. Anxiety – fear of an anticipated or actual threat and uncertainty about one’s ability to cope with it
  4. Dread – the anticipation of severe danger
  5. Desperation – a response to the inability to reduce the danger
  6. Panic – sudden uncontrollable fear
  7. Horror – a mixture of fear, disgust, and shock
  8. Terror – intense, overpowering fear

So, where would you say talking to a stranger in a bar falls? Probably between trepidation and anxiety. What about meeting a lion on your way to work? I’d say anywhere from panic to terror, depending on the context.

So, the subjective experience that generates the type of fear depends on who you are and where you are. Being at the edge of a cliff as a person with a severe fear of heights will be a different experience than a person who is a professional rock climber. Similarly, standing twenty feet away from the edge will also have a different result in both cases.

So, once we are in these situations, depending on the context, we get the psychological response of the appropriate type of fear.

And then, what is our usual behavioral response in each situation? The Atlas of Emotions describes them as such:

  • Trepidation and Nervousness
  • hesitate
  • ruminate
  • worry
  • Anxiety
  • hesitate
  • ruminate
  • worry
  • freeze
  • withdraw
  • Dread
  • ruminate
  • worry
  • freeze
  • withdraw
  • scream/yell
  • Desperation
  • hesitate
  • ruminate
  • avoid
  • freeze
  • scream/yell
  • Panic
  • freeze
  • scream/yell
  • withdraw
  • ruminate
  • worry
  • Horror and Terror
  • freeze
  • scream/yell
  • withdraw

You can probably recognize these reactions, and you can also certainly think of situations where the response doesn’t match the intellectual level of the case. For instance, if a bee flies near my face, my reaction suggests a tiger had attacked me. Not once, but many times, I have spilled my coffee trying to flee from the path of a bee. That is, of course, stupid, but at that moment, my logical brain cannot control my reactions. I cannot think my way out of them.

In time, I could practice and re-frame my reactions because if I leave them unchanged, they will always take me to the same spot and drive the same kind of behavior.

How Do We Feel Fear?

We all have some basic understanding of our reactions when faced with different kinds of fear. It’s also essential to understand the effects that fear has on us. In other words, how do we feel fear? By understanding how you feel fear, you can begin to take control of your reaction to it. All you need is to catch those feelings just a bit earlier to allow your brain to rationalize the situation.

Once you force your prefrontal cortex (your thinking brain) to fire up and overcome your reptilian brain’s reaction, you may begin to overcome fear.

But let’s see how fear manifests in our bodies. Here are some common effects we all have experienced at some point or another:

  • Shortness of breath
  • Increased heart rate/heart pounding
  • Sweaty palms or forehead
  • Trembling and shaking
  • Muscles contracting and tensing up
  • Goosebumps (from muscles tensing around hair roots)
  • Feeling hot flashes
  • Jaw clenching/teeth clattering
  • Butterflies in the stomach
  • Dry mouth and eyes
  • Reduced hearing/ringing in ears
  • A knot in the throat
  • Nausea
  • Feeling of powerlessness
  • A sense of being frozen
  • Inability to think / mind-freeze
  • Inability to speak

Do you recognize some of them? Of course, you do. You probably have experienced at least several of these in various situations in your life. I know I have, and when they came, they just took over. That inability to think, or mind-paralysis, is what gets me in particular.

What Happens in The Body?

It’s easy to recognize these cues, and you immediately associate them with some level of fear, but what happens inside your body?

It all begins inside the amygdala, two almond-shaped sets of neurons located deep in the brain’s medial temporal lobe. The amygdala is a part of our limbic system, together with the thalamus, hypothalamus, and hippocampus. As I mentioned, the limbic system is primarily responsible for the formation of emotions, and it also plays a role in memory and other functions.

When we find ourselves in a situation that has been programmed into our brains as being a threat, the amygdala begins the process of letting us know. That is critical because if we don’t react fast enough, we might be in real danger. Think about a time when you are alone in the house, and you hear what seems to be someone walking on the upper floor when you know nobody should be there. Your brain immediately interprets that sound and all the context in which it came to you as potentially dangerous. The amygdala fires up the hypothalamus, which, in turn, activates the pituitary gland. That is where the nervous system meets the endocrine system.

The pituitary gland secretes a substance called adrenocorticotropic hormone (ACTH) into the blood. At this point, your body is beginning to get ready. When ACTH hits the blood, the body releases cortisol. You’ve probably heard of cortisol as the “stress hormone” and how striving to reduce cortisol will help reduce stress.

Well, alright, but in this situation, the brain thinks you are in real danger and wants to stress you on purpose. So it flushes cortisol, which increases your blood pressure, blood sugar, and white cell count. Cortisol also facilitates turning fatty acids into energy that is quickly stored and kept ready for your muscles to utilize, as needed.

In addition to this, your body also sends a hefty dose of epinephrine into the blood. Epinephrine is a hormone, also known as adrenaline. It increases the rate of blood circulation, accelerates breathing, and increases carbohydrate metabolism to prepare your muscles for exertion.

These actions in your body happen within seconds, and the changes in your blood and hormone levels generate the reactions mentioned above. Your brain puts your entire body on high alert in the blink of an eye. That blink of an eye might be the difference between you springing into a run away from a predator and finding yourself trapped in the predator’s arms (or claws).

A study from 2014 found that the sensation of being frozen is a normal reaction. By shutting down temporarily, your brain can assess your next move. Should you hide or attack? Should you scream and run? Having those few “deer in the headlights” seconds is when your brain makes the decision.

“We are more often frightened than hurt, and we suffer more from imagination than from reality.”Seneca

How to Overcome Fear?

Now that we understand what fear is and how it affects us, let’s focus on a few strategies you can employ to defeat fear. This is a specific part of our learning to deal with uncomfortable emotions, in general.

First of all, you must ascertain whether your fear is rational or not. For instance, if you walk into an amusement park and take a roller coaster ride, you will feel fear. But the rush of adrenaline will be pleasant, even though you do experience the same fear-like reactions.

That’s because your brain understands that although it seems like you are in danger, you are, in fact, not. That is very similar to passing by a barking dog on a leash. You flinch, you sweat, and there’s a part of you that pictures the dog chasing after you, but then your rational brain takes over and realizes that the dog is on a leash, and the owner is holding it tightly. So, you relax, and all the above effects vanish.

But some situations are new, or you don’t have enough experience with them, and your brain cannot make that distinction.

Take talking to a stranger in a bar, for example. Once again, it probably won’t result in a dangerous situation in our day and age, but it could. What if the over-jealous boyfriend of the girl you approach with an innocent question takes it out of context, and his insecurity turns into a reaction toward you? What if the girl just broke up with a jerk, and she’s not particularly keen to talk to men? But, what if she came there looking for a guy, and you happen to be the perfect match?

Your brain is evaluating all of these situations in an attempt to figure out an overarching solution. Since this is impossible, you will wind up frozen and overcome with anxiety. A lot of these feelings spawn from your own values and beliefs, which are at the basis of your character.

So, what can you do? After all, not doing anything ever is not the right thing to do, either.

Accept fear and act despite it. That's courage. Share on X

10 Strategies to Overcome Fear


1. Accept that Fear Exists.

First and foremost, you must accept that fear exists and that it will always be there. It’s not a matter of being courageous or gutsy or weak or anything like that: fear is a mechanism meant to keep us safe, and it will never go away.

2. Recognize the Cues

Observe yourself in situations that generate fear. What happens to you? We are all different, and we react differently. Figure out how your body tells you that it’s afraid.

3. Take stock of situations

Now that you know the cues, observe and determine the circumstances that give you fear in your day-to-day. Is it talking to your boss? Opening an awkward conversation? What are the things that fire up the cues for you?

4. Name that fear

Be honest and admit that a specific situation generates fear for you. Hiding away from the fear won’t make it go away. When you use your logical brain to hide, it makes your reptilian brain even more suspicious. Instead, admit the fear and call it out. Write it down. Wear it on your sleeve, and it will lose its power over you.

5. Reflect and analyze

Once you have identified situations and cues, you have the opportunity to reflect. Every time you find yourself overcome by fear, name that fear. Later, when you are away from the situation, reflect upon when it happened and how. That will allow you to logically discern genuinely dangerous situations from those in which you are irrationally afraid.

6. Act fast

Since you know from your reflections that some situations lead you to an irrational fear, you have the opportunity to act before your reptilian brain takes over. A method such as the 5-second rule can help you respond within five seconds and prevent the fear from paralyzing you.

7. Practice being afraid

It sounds weird, but it’s true. Once you have used your thinking brain and identified that a situation wouldn’t lead to your death despite your fear, and you have learned how to act fast to prevent the fear from stopping you, it’s now time to practice. As you practice, you become better at running head-on against the fear. You won’t rationalize yourself into approaching more strangers in a club; instead, approach as many strangers as you can by acting fast, and your ability to cheat fear will grow.

8. Practice mindfulness

As you take on attacking your fears head-on, you will experience emotional fatigue. Pitting your thinking brain against your reptilian brain exhausts both of them. You need to find a few tools that disengage you from that fight and allow both your brains to re-balance and rest. Things such as journaling, meditation, and breathing will help you regain that place of tranquility that gets shaken by fear. Practiced consistently, these are tools in your arsenal against fear.

9. Learn more about fear

When a concept is unfamiliar to us, we tend to raise the anxiety level just to be sure. The more you understand how fear works and what it does to you, the better you will be at conquering it. So keep reading and learning. I’ve listed some additional resources at the bottom of this article that should be helpful.

10. Be in good company

Being alone is enough to raise fear in many situations. That’s why, in general, I recommend you surround yourself with people who have mastered conquering their fears. They still experience it, but they are either better at dealing with it naturally, or they’ve practiced enough that they have overcome it. They are those that you would probably call “courageous.” Make friends like that, be in their group, and learn from them.

“Of all the liars in the world, sometimes the worst are our own fears.”Rudyard Kipling

Overcome Fear – Other Resources

Now, before you go, I have…

3 Questions For You

  1. What are some of the fears you have and you know are irrational?
  2. Can you pinpoint a time in your life when your progress has been delayed by fear?
  3. What are some of the techniques you used to overcome your fears?

Please share your answers in the comments below. Sharing knowledge helps us all improve and get better!



beliefs, emotions, mindset, weaknesses

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