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What is Fear?

Updated on May 1, 2011

Fear is an emotional reaction, often violent, to a real or imagined threat. Fear in human beings is believed to be learned rather than instinctive. Shortly after birth, the young of many animals are capable of well-coordinated withdrawal or flight reactions when confronted with :i frightening stimulus. The human infant, however, does not display any such coordinated fear response. Many child psychologists agree that the human infant does not show a recognizable fear response until approximately the sixth month after birth.

On the other hand, infants can communicate certain other emotions, such as distress or delight, as early as three months of age. Observations of infants' emotional reactions by child specialists have led psychologists to the belief that humans are not born with innate emotional responses to particular situations, but learn to respond emotionally as a result of their experiences.

It has been demonstrated, for example, that some fears are learned directly from others and represent imitation of those who are afraid. Thus, a child may be afraid of cats hecause he has observed that his mother has always shown fear of cats. Oilier fears are the direct consequence of unpleasant experiences, such as the development of a fear of dogs after being attacked by one.

Characteristics of Fear Responses

Although scientists believe that 'fear is not instinctive in human infants, there is general agreement that the fear response, once aroused, follows a rather characteristic sequence and involves certain physiological reactions that are highly predictable regardless of the individual involved. Studies conducted with soldiers in the Spanish Civil War and during World War II have shown iliat when men are subjected to intense and prolonged fear inducing experiences, a definite sequence of reactions occurs as the individual manifests his fear.

In the beginning of the fear reaction, immediately after the arousal of the fear, the individual displays greater alertness to what is going on around him. At the same time, physiological changes take place that seem to prepare the body for strenuous activity. If the fear-provoking situation continues and the danger is interpreted to be great, ilie behavior of the individual shows a characteristic change: his activity is lessened, he takes steps slowly and carefully, his gaze becomes fixed toward the potential source of the danger, and all spontaneous activity is eliminated.

Under this state of increased vigilance, there is lessened flexibility in behavior.

If the fearful circumstance continues still longer or if the danger increases, the individual begins to find it increasingly difficult to control his emotions. At this stage, there may be physiological symptoms: perspiration, tremors, rapid breathing, accelerated heart beat. Judgment and iliinking become less efficient. Behavior becomes more erratic. With good judgment impaired, the individual may perform acts that will increase rather than decrease his danger.

As the dangerous circumstance continues, panic develops. Panic-the final stage in the fear sequence-represents a breakdown in thinking and in behavior because of fear. The individual may suddenly thrash out in hysterical agitation, may shout, cry, or laugh, and in general may show that he has lost control of his behavior. In panic, men have been known to leave protected positions and run wildly into the face of the enemy, or to jump to their death from high windows during a fire, or to stand as if paralyzed when a simple movement of withdrawal would have taken them to a safer position.

Theories of Fear

The American physiologist Walter Cannon, in the 1920's, proposed an "emergency function" theory of the physiological changes that accompany fear. He pointed out that the sympathetic nervous system, under conditions of fear, initiates changes that energize the individual for violent action or flight. At the same time, the parasympathetic system, which normally stimulates digestion and other vegetative functions, is inhibited when the individual becomes afraid. More recent workers have taken issue with Cannon's theory. They point out that the physiological reactions to fear do not necessarily prepare the body for violent action; often the frightened individual becomes weak, tremulous, and confused.

In place of Cannon's emergency function, present-day physiological theory postulates a "visceral storm." Apparently there must be a balance of the discharges from the sympathetic and the parasympathetic systems if the organism is to function efficiently. What often happens as a consequence of fear is a loss of the balance between these two levels of autonomic nervous system functioning to the degree that the individual becomes, literally, helpless.


Typically, fear is aroused by a specific situation, as when a man nearly steps on a dangerous snake and becomes frightened. Another reaction, very close to fear, is anxiety. Anxiety is a sense of fear in response to forces within the personality rather than to specific external threats. A neurotic, for example, may sense that he has hostile impulses toward one of his parents. His recognition of such destructive impulses may "frighten" the patient about himself. In such a circumstance, he would be said to exhibit anxiety.

Usually, in anxiety the individual experiences vague unpleasant feelings that are fear-provoking, but he is unable to take action that will remove the anxiety. He is anxious about his own impulses, his own feelings, his own adequacy.

Freudians believe that repression and the other defense mechanisms are employed to protect the ego from anxiety. Anxiety is one of the major components of most personality disturbances, especially the neuroses.


Another special form of fear is a phobia. A phobia is an excessive and irrational fear that the individual is compelled to experience when placed in a particular set of circumstances.

Phobias usually originate from some intensely frightening experience that is repressed.

Most often a phobia involves a displacement of fear from a particular event, so that the fear may later be aroused by an object or event that has only a symbolic connection with the original fearful situation. Examples of phobias are the fear of small, enclosed spaces (known by the technical term claustrophobia), the fear of open spaces (known as agoraphobia), and the fear of the sight of blood (hematophobia).

What do you fear the most?

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