Spiders, flying, heights, snakes, clowns, the dark—what is it about our phobias that makes them so, well, frightening? From blind dates to rollercoasters, we’re examining the psychology of fear.

Your heart starts to thump. Louder and louder, until it's almost painful. Sweat springs to the surface of your skin. Your breath hitches and trembles. Your muscles freeze… do you run? Or do you stand your ground?

Fear is a primal human emotion. It is both chemical and psychological, causing the same physical symptoms in us all. Our emotional response, however, cannot be predicted, for each and every one of us reacts differently.

 

Fight or flight?

the psychology of fear

Fear, much like pain, is not usually a pleasurable emotion (more on that later), yet it is vital for self-preservation.

In The Gift of Fear, national security expert Gavin de Becker states that we should always listen to our fears and use our instincts to process whether or not a perceived threat will manifest itself. He also suggests that men and women have different understandings of fear.

For example, subconsciously, a woman on a blind date will sense whether her date is a genuine love interest or a charming psychopath. The decisions she makes could ultimately be the difference between life and death.

He says, “men and women live in different worlds… most men fear getting laughed at or humiliated by a romantic prospect while most women fear rape and death.”

 

Looking for a high

watching a scary movie

Humans are also responsible for seeking fear out. We watch scary movies, go on rollercoaster rides, practise extreme sports. Why?

Adrenaline, the chemical reaction that’s responsible for fear, can sometimes feel like a drug, with all the associated highs. Indeed, its other name—epinephrine—tells us that it acts as an important factor in the ‘fight-or-flight’ response.

Because of its effect on the body some people feel pleasure when this chemical floods their system, for example when riding a rollercoaster. In most cases, while the danger seems real but the circumstances are highly controlled, so we are assured that in reality, the threat is minimal.

For some, the absence of fear is a dangerous reality. Those who suffer damage to the amygdala—the memory, decision-making and emotional parts of the brain—are unable to feel fear. Therefore, they cannot accurately assess whether they are putting themselves, or others, into danger.

 

Basic instinct

Scared fear of heights

Animals learn early on to listen to their instinctual fears, but humans have now evolved to ignore this emotional early warning system in favour of an intellectual reaction.

If humans were to relearn any skill from childhood, it should be the ability to listen to our instincts and realise that fear, despite its negative connotations, is essentially there to guide and protect us.

As Gavin Becker says, “you have a brilliant internal guardian that stands ready to warn you of hazards and guide you through risky situations.” That’s pretty amazing.

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