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The purpose of fear and how to overcome it

December 28, 2022 - 18 min read


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What is fear?

Phobia vs. fear

What causes fear?

How can I overcome fear?

Learn to live with fear

Fear is ingrained in all of us.

It’s an evolutionary survival tactic known as our fight-or-flight instinct. The purpose of fear is to use adrenaline to tell us to protect ourselves and move out of harm’s way.

You’ve probably felt different levels of fear throughout your life — in a dark theater watching a scary movie, dealing with an aggressive person, or driving in the dark in the middle of a storm.

You may even have anxieties that transform into fears. Our modern lives are full of fear of failure the uncertainty of our financial future amidst recessions and pandemics, or unexpectedly losing a loved one.

But what is fear, and why do people have fears? Let’s review the differences between fear, phobias, and anxieties and ways to confront our fears and come out safe on the other side.

What is fear?

Your fear response is your body’s natural warning system. When you feel physically or psychologically under threat, different areas of the brain immediately activate and communicate with one another.

This response is referred to as fear conditioning and consists of three distinct steps:

  1. Receive a sensory message with a potentially dangerous output
  2. Record the experience into your memory
  3. Initiate a defense response

The amygdala is the first responder, located just in front of the hippocampus. The amygdala activation is the first step of your fight-or-flight response by sending messages to the prefrontal cortex, the part of the brain that regulates your fear response based on previous experiences.

Dopamine emitted from the prefrontal cortex determines how you process learned information, including memory, attention, inhibition of impulses, and cognitive flexibility. In neuroscience, this is the part of the brain that dictates post-traumatic stress disorder and other anxiety disorders.

In this conversation between different parts of the brain, your nervous system releases stress hormones like cortisol or adrenaline, telling your body to stick around and fight or run away from a dangerous situation.

Some other symptoms of fear you may experience include:

  • Increased perspiration
  • Accelerated heart rate
  • Increased blood pressure and blood flow
  • Sudden rush of adrenaline
  • Hot flushes
  • Body trembles
  • Chills
  • Accelerated breathing or shortness of breath
  • Tightness in the chest

Fear can also be an emotional response that triggers positive or negative emotions, as the pathways of fear are similar to excitement. This is why you might love the goosebumps you get when exploring a haunted house while someone else might be filled with terror by the same situation.

Here are some common emotions you might fear during an emotional fear response:

  • Joy
  • Excitement
  • Elatedness
  • Anger
  • Frustration
  • Rage
  • Dread
  • Confusion
  • Terror

Fear is probably a familiar feeling. We have all felt our stomachs sink, our minds race, and our arms fill up with goosebumps — regardless of what’s threatening us. It’s hard for our modern brains to distinguish between the stress of a roller coaster and a high-stakes budget proposal. 

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Phobia vs. fear

Fear is our natural biological response when we are in the presence of actual or perceived danger, while a phobia is an overwhelming feeling of stress or anxiety about something, even when you’re out of harm’s way.

A phobia usually triggers our fear response with a specific feared situation or object. In some cases, you might feel constant anxiety or experience panic attacks that your specific phobias might suddenly appear.

Imagine that you live in an area with tornados and the weather report sets out an alert. Fear for your physical well-being will compel you to take shelter and prepare with flashlights, drinking water, and other essentials. Your feelings of fear dissipate once the tornado passes.

But a phobia means that the anxiety never completely goes away or is triggered when you aren’t in danger. You could feel scared every time there is a thunderstorm, or just thinking about tornados could cause sudden, overwhelming anxiety and stress.

If you constantly feel fear, it might be diagnosed as a mental health condition, phobia, or anxiety disorder by a professional.

Social phobias

For people with social anxiety, everyday social situations might cause anxiety, self-consciousness, and embarrassment, along with the physical sensations of fear.

Here are some common social phobias:

  • Fear of being judged
  • Worry that you’ll embarrass yourself in front of people
  • Anxiety about offending someone


Fear of being humiliated or embarrassed in a social situation might inhibit you from participating in the following activities:

Regardless of the source, feeling inundated with constant phobia-induced anxiety can severely impact your mental and physical well-being. If left untreated, it could lead to burnout, physical exhaustion, or poor performanceand even depression.

But overcoming your social anxiety could be what will push you closer to asking for that raise, nailing the presentation you worked so hard on, or building better connections with your colleagues

What causes fear?

Specific phobias usually are caused by a specific traumatic experience or event.

Here are a few causes of fear:

Childhood memories: A traumatic event in your childhood could be the source of fear you try to protect yourself from in adulthood. Examples include the following:

  • You were in a car crash and have developed safe driving habits to avoid accidents
  • You fell off your bicycle once and subsequently always wear a helmet and safety gear
  • You almost drowned and now stay close to the shore or only swim in pools
  • You were bit by a dog and avoid or are extra careful around new or strange dogs

Dangerous situations: Fear of real or imagined dangerous situations that could stem from lived experiences or external influences. These settings might increase your nerves that something bad could happen. Examples include the following:

  • Fear of driving home alone at night
  • Fear of walking through an unfamiliar neighborhood
  • Fear of falling from a great height


Uncertainty: Uncertainty can be exciting for some people, while others might find a lack of control to be a source of anxiety. Fear of uncertainty most likely has a cause and effect. It may be stimulated by past experiences or new ones with an unclear outcome. Examples include the following:

  • Being single might create a fear of being alone
  • Financial hardship might create a fear of the future
  • A new job might create a fear of failure
  • A breakup might create a fear of rejection
  • Past hardships might create a fear of something terrible suddenly happening
  • Meeting a new group of people might create a fear of being judged

Specific objects: Phobias that are most often related to a mental health disorder based on irrational anticipation of danger, either real or exaggerated. Examples include the following:

  • Bodily phobias like blood, shots, or medical procedures like needles
  • Phobias of the natural environment like open spaces, water, germs, or the dark
  • Animal and insect phobias like dogs, mice, snakes, or spiders
  • Situational phobias like flying, small spaces, or elevators

Learned fears: As a child or young adult, you may have observed that a friend or family member was afraid of a specific object, and you learned that you should be afraid, too. Examples include the following:

  • Your mother was afraid or had a phobia of spiders, so spotting one scares you 
  • Your father was afraid of cats, so you stay away from them
  • Your grandmother was scared of drowning, so you avoid large bodies of water


How can I overcome fear?

If you feel overwhelmed with fears or phobias, there are several different treatments for overcoming them, depending on how extreme your fear is and whether it impacts your day-to-day life.

Eventually, a fear might grow from a helpful warning sign to a major obstacle. When that happens, here are some steps you can take.

1. Put your fear into perspective

If your fear inhibits specific activities or certain behaviors but doesn’t impact on your general well-being, you may be able to overcome the fear by contextualizing it within your life. 

Imagine that you are starting a new job and have a fear of failure or imposter syndrome. Practice some positive thinking with these exercises:

  • Recognize that you were chosen for the job and that your new employer sees the value you will add to the team.

  • Write down all the professional accomplishments that have led you to this moment.

  • Ask yourself: If I am afraid of failure, are there any skills or abilities I can learn to improve and prevent failing?

  • Analyze whether your fear of failure is a self-fulfilling prophecy. Could working on your confidence and self-esteem push you to take advantage of the potential you already possess?

If you need an extra push to turn your fears into a positive outcome, you can always lean on a friend, loved one, colleague, or counselor.

2. Seek help from a mental health professional

If you don’t have the resources to overcome your fears alone, seek help through psychiatry, psychology, or with another mental health professional. Here are some common medical treatments to overcome fears and phobias:


Desensitization therapy: Accompanied sessions where an individual is gradually exposed to their phobia and encouraged to face their fear through positive reinforcement. If you’re afraid of dogs, the treatment might go something like this:

  1. Talk to your therapist about dogs
  2. Look at pictures or watch videos with dogs
  3. Touch a stuffed animal dog
  4. Eventually, be able to be in the close proximity to a dog

Cognitive behavioral therapy: With a therapist, you have sessions formed around challenging irrational fears with more realistic situations accompanied by different coping methods. This type of behavioral therapy is meant to help teach you to have stronger control over your thoughts and emotions.

Learn to live with fear

Fear is a natural bodily response and a regular fixture in all of our lives. It’s a good idea to understand your fear responses, learn how to manage them, and even use them to your benefit.

Instead of letting fear dictate our lives and inhibit our personal growth and well-being, we should learn to detect when fear is keeping us out of harm’s way or pushing us into a nightmare of our own making that breaks us down and stops us from moving forward in life. We’re in control of our lives — and our fears.

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Published December 28, 2022

Elizabeth Perry

Content Marketing Manager, ACC

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