What is fear?

Fear is an unpleasant emotion caused by a perceived threat of harm or suffering. Fear may be referred to by many different names; phobia, anxiety, social anxiety, panic, fight-or-flight and so on.

How does fear work?

Fear is often characterised using the ‘fight or flight’ trope. In actual fact, there are three common responses to a threatening situation: fight, flight or freeze.

If you’ve ever felt fear or anxiety, you may be familiar with the sense of a racing heartbeat and rapid, uncontrollable breathing. You may experience a chill caused by the constriction of blood vessels to send more blood to major muscles (for ‘fight’ or ‘flight’). You may feel tense, as your muscles contract in readiness. These can all be unpleasant and distressing sensations.

The Science Of Fear Infographic (1)
The Science of Fear Infographic

Fear in mental health: phobias

It is common to have what might be termed an ‘irrational’ fear, or phobia. What defines a ‘phobia’ is when a fear becomes so overwhelming that it can actively reduce your quality of life.

Common phobias include

  • Acrophobia- the fear of heights
  • Aerophobia- the fear of flying
  • Arachnophobia- the fear of spiders
  • Astraphobia- the fear of thunder and lightning
  • Autophobia- the fear of being alone
  • Claustrophobia- the fear of confined or crowded spaces
  • Hemophobia- the fear of blood

All of these have a basis in legitimate concerns. Heights can be dangerous when unsafe, as can spiders in the wild. But phobias tend to be an exaggerated fear of a threat that is not, in practice, dangerous.

A lot of common phobias may have their roots in our evolution, since many of the ‘threats’ people fear would have been far more dangerous in a prehistoric context. A storm could, in the past, have caused exposure or destroyed crops. Being alone in the past could spell disaster from a survival standpoint. But today, many of these originally rational fears are no longer relevant.

Fear in mental health: Anxiety

Another way in which fears can directly impact mental health is through unspecified anxiety.

Around 14% of the population will experience some type of anxiety condition each year; that’s more than 3 million Australians. Generalised Anxiety Disorder (GAD) is an extremely common condition, affecting roughly 3% of the population (more than 700,000 Australians) per year.

GAD is a condition in which common worries, such as “what if I fail my exam?” or “what if someone close to me gets ill?” become overwhelming and uncontrollable.

Anxieties can be social, health-related, financial, personal; they can take many different shapes. For people experiencing this, the worry becomes disproportionate, and can impede daily life.

Because stress hormones can cause poor concentration and tension, anxieties can inhibit a person’s ability to interact socially and engage with their work or study. This withdrawal can in turn deepen the anxiety, in a damaging negative feedback loop. That’s why intervention is so important.

How can fear be unlearned?

One of the reasons people are so susceptible to phobias and anxieties nowadays could be in part a result of a pernicious phenomenon called ‘negativity bias‘. Negativity bias refers to the human tendency to focus more on negative information than positive.

In practice, negativity bias is rampant in news media. The rise of social media and the 24-hour news cycle means that we are overexposed to negative events, which can cause a sense of gloom.

Impacts of negativity bias

More broadly, negativity bias is why we often focus more on insults than compliments, and are consumed by the negatives in our lives even when they might be far outnumbers by the positives.

How to overcome negative bias?

One technique to counter negativity bias is known as Mental Contrasting. It’s a psychological tool used to reflect on the pros and cons of the pathway that a person is on, examining outcomes both negative and positive, and putting those outcomes into perspective.

Mental contrasting is all about creating perspectives and self-awareness. Perspective is crucial because it allows you to examine your fears in the context of your life more broadly, with all its positives and variability. Self-awareness is important because it enables you to identify negative thought patterns and take control of your wellbeing from a more active, autonomous and empowered position.

Other, demonstrably successful methods for overcoming fear

Cognitive behavioural therapy

Cognitive behavioural therapy, which aims to challenge and alter thought patterns that can lead to negative thinking and false equivalencies that can lead to anxiety.


Mindfulnessis a technique that aims to promote presence of awareness, or ‘living in the now’. Though it may sound like a buzzword, it has demonstrated benefits in promoting mental wellbeing.

Exposure therapy

When it comes to phobias, treatment can look a little different. Since phobias are characterised as irrational and paralysing fears, focus is on actively overcoming the fear itself rather than developing coping strategies to mitigate against it. As such, the most common treatment is exposure therapy.

Exposure therapy involves gradually and incrementally exposing a phobia sufferer to the object of their phobia. While it may sound daunting, the gradual nature of the exposure – a ‘baby steps’ approach – can make confronting the object of one’s fear far less challenging than might be imagined.

Exposure therapy works by gradually replacing original fear-based associations with far more benign associations to the object of the phobia.

Cognitive behavioural therapy is also often used as an adjunct treatment for phobias, to help a person develop coping strategies.

Fear is a fundamental part of life

Fear is a fundamental part of life. It is found in all living things, and protects us from harm. In this sense, ironically, it’s not something to be scared of. It’s evidence that we care for ourselves and others. It’s the necessary counterpoint to security and contentment.

Anxiety counselling to overcome fear

But if your fears are overwhelming you, there are numerous strategies that can help you adapt and overcome. Speak to one of our anxiety counsellors today to find out more how this could be affecting your life.

Amalyah Hart

Amalyah Hart

Amalyah Hart is a freelance journalist and content writer, specialising in science communication. She has a degree in Archaeology and Anthropology from the University of Oxford and has completed a Master of Journalism at the University of Melbourne. She writes on psychology, health and health policy, and the environment. She also works in public policy consulting, specialising in the healthcare sector.

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