Everyone experiences fear at some point in their lives. It’s quite normal to be nervous or anxious about approaching a cliff edge, or scared of walking home in the dark. Being fearful of potentially dangerous situations is a biological mechanism that helps to keep us safe. As such, it has evolved over millions of years to protect us from harm.
How We Respond To Fear
Interestingly, humans have a multi-layered response to fear. Yes, we have the in-built, primal response to possible danger, the “flight or fight” response, but we also have the higher brain functions that assimilate different inputs and allow us to make informed, conscious decisions regarding which action to take to combat whatever caused the fear response.
For example, if a lion appears from behind a tree and roars at us, we’ll run, or climb the tree. It’s possible we could run away on instinct, then think, “I should’ve climbed the tree!”, which proves my point, that our higher brain functions, given the chance, will consider the available information and decide on the best action to take. That’s why, if it’s at all possible, we freeze and strain our hearing in response to an odd noise or we open our eyes wide to maximize the available light and try to see better when encountering an unexpected shadow. Our higher brain functions request more information to make the best decision.
There’s little point in hearing a noise and being alerted to a potentially dangerous situation if we then misjudge the direction and run towards it! Of course, if the danger is imminent, we run or fight, but most of the time, we freeze and attempt to gather more information to make the best decision.
As the brain gets more information, we can narrow down the list of possible scenarios generated in response to the stimulus. Was that noise outside at night a burglar, cats fighting, the wind blowing something over, a car backfiring, kids letting off fireworks or a door slamming? The initial noise triggers our fear response because it’s unusual and potentially dangerous. If it isn’t imminently dangerous, it’s up to our higher brain functions to decide on a course of action. Most likely, the course of action isn’t “flight” or “fight”, but “false alarm”, and the sense of fear subsides along with the stress hormones.
Where this all goes wrong for certain individuals is the point at which the higher brain functions keep playing out negative outcomes to the extent that the person can’t function or deal with whatever is causing the fear. Such an endpoint is found in people with phobias who actively avoid any possible contact with what causes their fear. Note that, in these instances, the fear is of something that may happen, so it generates ongoing anxiety and nervousness, as opposed to being a reaction to a stimulus such as a shadow, a noise or other actual event.
When Does A Fear Become Irrational?
Fear is a rational response to potentially dangerous situations whereas a phobia is an irrational fear. Unlike fear, a person who has a phobia will actively avoid any possible scenario where they may encounter the item or sitation they are phobic of, which can potentially disrupt their day-to-day lives.
It’s easy to imagine a spectrum, with extreme phobia at one end, and carefree at the other with all the words we use to describe fearful states such as anxious, nervous, scared, terrified, petrified and worried, at points in between.
When we understand that fear is a useful biological mechanism, it’s easier to accept that a gradual movement away from a phobia towards being merely fearful is an achievable goal. It’s not useful to have the mindset of wanting to move from a phobia to the other end of the spectrum to become carefree. It’s much less achievable, and not even desirable as we need an element of fear to keep us safe.
The way to make the transistion from high on the phobic spectrum to a normalised response is through education about how an individual can control themselves at all times, even if they can’t control the environment. Most people who have normal responses to scary situations talk themselves through it. It’s the rational brain overcoming the primal fear response. Most people don’t need a lot of training, if any, to overcome the majority of scary situations. However, people higher on the phobic spectrum require more help, advice and training.
It’s interesting to note that fear can be over-ridden by both psychological and physiological means. If you consider a mother protecting her offspring when faced with danger, the mother will often put the safety of her offspring above that of her own, which is a psychological choice. A different, physiological, over-ride mechanism is instigated by the toxoplasmosis parasite which makes rats less fearful of cats by attacking the amygdala (brain) of the rats. By this merchanism, the rats get eaten by cats and the parasite reproduces within the cat. Furthermore, rats with lesions of the amygdala do not show fear or anxiety. So over-riding the fear response is possible in different ways.
Fears And Phobias Are Common
As previously mentioned, fear is a universal mechanism for the recognition and avoidance of danger. So if everyone experiences fear to some degree, how common is a phobia?
According to one scientific study, which looked at situational phobias (lightning, enclosed spaces, darkness, flying and heights), animal phobias (spiders and snakes) and harm phobias (injections, dentists and/or injuries) and defined a phobia as a fear that “was out of conscious control, interfered with life and lead to the avoidance of the feared object”, one in five people of the 704 tested met the criteria for one or more phobias! The breakdown was just over one in four women and one in eight men.
Interestingly, the social phobias and agoraphobia were omitted, so the actual percentages of people experiencing any phobia would be even higher!
Of course, there are difficulties both in correctly diagnosing and labelling phobias, so the reported percentages vary from one scientific study to another, but it is obvious that fearful and phobic responses to stimuli are very common. Recognising that many other people suffer from the same phobias can be a useful starting point for a lot of people who are attempting to come to terms with a phobia.
How We Can Help
At this website we have top-quality articles and advice on a range of fears and phobias. For the moment, we’re focused on fear of flying, but soon we’ll be rolling out information to help people with all fears and phobias. We welcome your opinions and feedback as we expand the website and potentially offer books and courses.