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Fear is a vital response to physical and emotional danger—if we didn’t feel it, we couldn’t protect ourselves from legitimate threats. But often we fear situations that are far from life-or-death, and thus hang back for no good reason. Traumas or bad experiences can trigger a fear response within us that is hard to quell. Yet exposing ourselves to our personal demons is the best way to move past them.
What Is Fear?
Fear is one of the most basic human emotions. It is programmed into the nervous system and works like an instinct. From the time we’re infants, we are equipped with the survival instincts necessary to respond with fear when we sense danger or feel unsafe.
Fear helps protect us. It makes us alert to danger and prepares us to deal with it. Feeling afraid is very natural — and helpful — in some situations. Fear can be like a warning, a signal that cautions us to be careful.
Like all emotions, fear can be mild, medium, or intense, depending on the situation and the person. A feeing of fear can be brief or it can last longer.
How Fear Works
When we sense danger, the brain reacts instantly, sending signals that activate the nervous system. This causes physical responses, such as a faster heartbeat, rapid breathing, and an increase in blood pressure. Blood pumps to muscle groups to prepare the body for physical action (such as running or fighting). Skin sweats to keep the body cool. Some people might notice sensations in the stomach, head, chest, legs, or hands. These physical sensations of fear can be mild or strong.
This response is known as “fight or flight” because that is exactly what the body is preparing itself to do: fight off the danger or run fast to get away. The body stays in this state of fight-flight until the brain receives an “all clear” message and turns off the response.
Signs and symptoms of phobias
The symptoms of a phobia can range from mild feelings of apprehension and anxiety to a full-blown panic attack. Typically, the closer you are to the thing you’re afraid of, the greater your fear will be. Your fear will also be higher if getting away is difficult.
Physical signs and symptoms of a phobia
Racing or pounding heart
Chest pain or tightness
Trembling or shaking
Feeling dizzy or lightheaded
A churning stomach
Hot or cold flashes; tingling sensations
Emotional signs and symptoms of a phobia
Feeling of overwhelming anxiety or panic
Feeling an intense need to escape
Feeling “unreal” or detached from yourself
Fear of losing control or going crazy
Feeling like you’re going to die or pass out
Knowing that you’re overreacting, but feeling powerless to control your fear
When to seek help for phobias and fears
Although phobias are common, they don’t always cause considerable distress or significantly disrupt your life. For example, if you have a snake phobia, it may cause no problems in your everyday activities if you live in a city where you are not likely to run into one. On the other hand, if you have a severe phobia of crowded spaces, living in a big city would pose a problem.
If your phobia doesn’t really impact your life that much, it’s probably nothing to be concerned about. But if avoidance of the object, activity, or situation that triggers your phobia interferes with your normal functioning or keeps you from doing things you would otherwise enjoy, it’s time to seek help.
Consider treatment for your phobia if:
It causes intense and disabling fear, anxiety, and panic.
You recognize that your fear is excessive and unreasonable.
You avoid certain situations and places because of your phobia.
Your avoidance interferes with your normal routine or causes significant distress.
You’ve had the phobia for at least six months.