According to Greek mythology, Ares, the god of war, became one of the lovers of Aphrodite, the goddess of fertility and love. From their union were born a daughter, Harmonia, goddess of harmony and cosmic balance, and two sons, Deimos and Phobos, gods of fear and terror, who always accompanied their father in battle. In our reality, the question “what is fear” has become a feeling that is often mentioned. But what if it’s difficult to do so?

Let’s understand what fear is and how to cope with it in critical situations.

Not everyone will be able to define fear, but this feeling is absolutely familiar to every person. Why is this so? Fear is a basic biological human reaction; it’s a basic emotion. This theory was once developed by American psychologist Carol Izard, who identified 10 such emotions, and fear is one of them.

Basic emotions are universal; they are innate and biologically conditioned for all people on Earth, regardless of their experience and cultural background. Culture may influence how a feeling is expressed outwardly, but the experience itself is universal for everyone.

Basic emotions are characterized by:

  • A certain facial expression. A person who is frightened has dilated pupils, slightly raised eyebrows, and a tense and pale face.
  • Biological conditioning and a clear connection between experience and nervous activity. Physiologically, in fear, adrenaline, noradrenaline, and cortisol are released, respiration and heart rate increase, and blood pressure rises.
  • Motivational value. Everything that happens in the human body under the influence of fear prepares it for reactions such as “hit, run, freeze,” which should save it from a threatening situation. The biological significance of fear is that we mobilize all the forces, all the resources of our organism to escape, overcome the threat, and protect ourselves from it. The task of fear is to help us adapt to reality, protect ourselves, and survive.

From here, it’s easy to understand what causes fear. Fear is caused by signals, events, and circumstances that our psyche recognizes as a source of danger.

Fear can be caused not only by the presence of an object or situation but also by its absence when the object is associated with a sense of peace and security. This is more obvious when it comes to children: a child may not perceive some frightening, threatening situation, but if the object of attachment (mom, dad, grandma, etc.) suddenly or for a long time disappears, the child may become afraid. Something similar sometimes happens with adults.

The intensity of fear is related to the subjective assessment of the situation: the greater the threat and the less control we have over the situation, the greater the fear. Our individual characteristics also affect it: for example, people with different types of nervous systems and temperaments will be frightened in different ways, have different stability, and have different thresholds of sensitivity to stimuli that cause fear. And this rule works not only for some controversial situations but also for some simple ones, like money-gambling at Nationalcasino or choosing the right place to go on vacation. Past experiences also have an impact: if a person has had and not worked through a psychic trauma, they may experience panic when faced with a context (people, situations, events) where there are associations with negative experiences from the past.

Besides fear, in one form or another related to objective reality, there are phobic fears. The intensity of such fear doesn’t correlate with objective danger. Emotional reactions in phobias aren’t triggered by a specific object or event. For example, in cases of aerophobia, a person seems to be afraid of flying on an airplane. But the nature of the fear in this case isn’t connected with the subject of the phobia at all! The subject of the phobia is only a “shell” for anxiety, which has a different nature: for example, it’s the fear of losing control over the situation, other people, or oneself. In aerophobia, the fear is not that the airplane will fail but rather that someone isn’t in control of everything in his life, that he isn’t omnipotent.

The sources of fear can be “categorized” into several categories:

  • External processes and events we encounter: an upcoming surgical procedure; a dog that wants to bite.
  • Our internal, mental processes: we are afraid of our desires, urges, feelings, thoughts, and intentions that seem dangerous and destructive, incompatible with the idea of what it means to be a good person.
  • Imaginary situations: the object of fear doesn’t exist in reality, but a person thinks about it and imagines it, and this also causes fear.

What Other Factors Influence the Emergence of Fear

First, it’s the intensity of the impact. For example, a person hears a loud sound, and just because it’s loud, he gets frightened. Secondly, it’s a novelty. The first encounter with any object, and any situation can be perceived as a potentially threatening one. We perceive something unfamiliar and suspect that there may be a threat in the unfamiliar: that’s why we are afraid. Third, there is evolutionary conditioning. Usually, the fear of sudden loud sounds and impending objects is included in this group. And sometimes there are specific fears: for example, fear of predators or insects, fear of snakes, or fear of heights. The last category is social situations: for example, fear of rejection or fear of being alone; fear that someone will cause guilt or shame; fear of meeting someone else’s aggression. Thus, we can fear both what is in the outside world and what is inside us.

What’s Important to Understand to Work With Your Fears

We don’t perceive reality directly, in its “pristine” form, and this is especially true of social reality, not physical reality. In a sense, we construct it. Our perception is deeply subjective: everything we observe in the world around us is mediated through our habitual beliefs and attitudes, our lived experience.

Often, what we fear is located as if “at the junction” of the intrapsychic and external worlds. Our fear is determined not only by objective reality but also by our view of it, our interpretations, in which the history of our entire life seeps in, which can lead to all kinds of distortions: sometimes extinguishing quite legitimate fear, sometimes amplifying it many times over.

The author himself believes that the main difficulty is understanding on what grounds to distinguish between external and internal: for example, a person who is characterized by catastrophizing usually has many arguments why this view is objective. In practice, this thinking strategy brings us suffering and doesn’t allow us to cope with the situation in any way.

Even if the circumstantial cause is frightening, our thoughts about the development of the situation can be dysfunctional, and it can be important to say to ourselves: “Yes, I think that I have this bad outcome, but it doesn’t mean that it will happen in reality. It’s just a thought, I don’t have to be guided by it or believe it.”

When it comes to the same event, different people face it in different ways. And they fear it differently too! When it comes to an event that has not yet happened, the most powerful thing that will work is the subjective experience that has already been lived. To reduce the level of fear, it’s important to recognize this influence and separate it from reality.

What can get in the way? Fear creates a “tunnel perception” effect: we focus only on the source of fear and become even more afraid. Freedom of behavior becomes limited, a person is ruled by only one desire: to escape from danger, it may seem that nothing exists outside the pair “I — the source of threat.” If a person fixates on this kind of perception for a long time, it may be important to get help from a therapist.

What to Do If You Are Scared Now

First, accept that fear is our natural feeling, and it’s probably impossible to live without it. It’s impossible to remove it. But if you realize that the situation that causes fear has already passed, you have taken sufficient actions to protect yourself. If right now nothing threatens your life, health, or well-being and the feeling of fear is permanent and doesn’t go anywhere, this fear is dysfunctional. Its “normal” task is to help you take the necessary action, but if you just live under the oppression of anxiety and fear for months or even years, it means that the internal component is strong (even if it seems to be “grounded” on external circumstances and events), and it’s important to work with it.

Let’s take, for example, universal fear: any living being is afraid of death, it’s impossible not to be afraid of it at all, and this fear is objective because sooner or later each of us is bound to die. But if thoughts of death fill every day of a person’s life, they “take away,” replace, and paralyze his life. There is a difference between being frightened of possible death. If a serious diagnosis is in question, or you see a poisonous snake in front of you right now. It’s quite another to be terrified that death exists as a given in this world, and it seems impossible to accept and come to terms with it.