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The Science of Fear


What’s your greatest fear? According to a study by Chapman University, the top 5 fears in America are:

  1. Public speaking
  2. Heights
  3. Bugs, snakes, and other animals
  4. Drowning
  5. Blood/needles

With the exception of drowning, these are all minimally threatening things that most people have to deal with yet, we react to them as if they’re going to kill us.

science of fear

What causes fear?

I’ve always wondered why people are so scared of the silliest things. It turns out it doesn’t take much to trigger the fear response in most people’s brains. We become afraid when we encounter things and situations that we don’t understand, can’t control, and/or will cause harm to us.

Aside from the fears we are born with, we also have conditioned fears. These are formed when we have a negative experience and are afraid of something similar happening again. They’re often irrational because our brain tricks us into believing that similar circumstances as the event will lead to the same frightening outcome. An example is if you were attacked by a dog when you were a child and you still cringe whenever one comes near you. The majority of dogs are friendly, but because you had one bad encounter, you avoid all of them.

People are also conditioned to fear things they are told are negative. This plays a role in how families and communities become prejudiced against different groups of people. Instinctively, we’re not afraid of people who have different beliefs than we do. But, if you’re raised to believe that a different group of people is morally wrong or dangerous, you’re likely going to fear those people even though you’ve never interacted with them.  

How Fear Affects Your Ability to Function

science of fear

The purpose of fear is to help you protect yourself in a dangerous situation. However, because most things that we’re afraid of today aren’t life-threatening, our body’s response to fear actually does more harm than good.

#1 Fight or Flight Response

The first thing that happens when you feel fear is your body goes into the fight or flight response. When this happens your heart rate rises, you get tunnel vision (your peripheral vision is reduced), your cortisol (the stress hormone) levels rise, and your body limits several other of its functions in order to make sure as much energy as possible is flowing to your muscles so you are prepared to defend yourself from danger.

#2 You Can’t Make Rational Decisions

Because your stress levels are so high and your body is diverting so much of your energy to your limbs, it’s almost impossible to make rational decisions while afraid.

According to Dr. Gregory Berns, a neuroscientist at Emory University, fear turns off the exploratory and risk-taking functions of your brain so you’re only able to react defensively, preventing you from assessing all your options and making smarter decisions.

This is why you should never force someone to make a big decision when they’re afraid or taken off-guard; in this moment they aren’t capable of rationally thinking through their options.

#3 Everything Becomes Negative

When we’re in a fearful situation, the brain perceives everything surrounding the cause of fear as negative. For example, if your child was diagnosed with a serious illness, you may feel fearful whenever you go to the hospital. The diagnosis is what triggered your fear, but because you received the frightening news while at the hospital, you associate the building and everything and everyone in it with your scary experience.

How to Be Less Fearful

Just because fear is a natural response doesn’t mean you can’t limit its power. Here’s how to be less fearful:

  1. Preparation: If you’re scared of activities that you know roughly what to expect such as job interviews, going to the dentist and confronting people, the best way to overcome it is to prepare. Practicing or thinking through what is going to happen prior to the event itself removes much of the uncertainty that causes fear.
  2. Take Action: Fear stems from a lack of control so focusing on things that you can control can help reduce your feelings. If you’re fearful of something major that you don’t have much control over, find one small thing that you can take action on and focus your attention on that so fear doesn’t overwhelm you.
  3. Relax: Research shows that it is easier to let go of your fear by engaging in a self-soothing behavior that relaxes you than it is to try to talk yourself out of being afraid. Find the self-soothing behavior that distracts you from your fear whether it’s prayer, meditation, yoga, a hobby etc. and put more time into this practice when you’re afraid.

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About Vanessa Van Edwards

Vanessa Van Edwards is a published author and behavioral investigator. She is a Huffington Post columnist and her courses and research has been featured on CNN, Forbes, Business Week and the Wall Street Journal. As a published Penguin author, Vanessa regularly speaks and appears in the media to talk about her research. She is a sought after consultant and speaker.


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