What Exactly Is Fear?

In my counseling practice I see people daily who are troubled by fear of one sort or another. In some cases the fear is an annoyance – like a small gravel in your shoe. In others, it’s a pervasive, traumatizing sense of doom and ruination (of some sort). The latter is what the Old Testament is conveying by the phrase: our hearts melted, there remained no more courage…

We all know what fear feels like… but what exactly is it, psychologically speaking? Fear is the subjective response to a real or perceived threat. The really interesting thing is that the response is the same whether the threat truly exists, or if the person just thinks it does. Let me illustrate.

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When I was a child I remember being awakened one night by a scraping on the outside of the house, by my bedroom window. When I looked about, I saw an ominous, back-lit shadow casting across the opposite wall of my room. I was terrified!

Anxiously, I called out for my mother and was relieved when she walked into the room. I told her there was someone trying to get in my window. After a calming hug, she showed me what was happening. The blustery wind was causing a tree limb to occasionally brush the house. The ominous shadow on the far wall was that same moonlit limb. Once she explained this to me, I was fine. In fact, I can even now, many years later, remember that I actually enjoyed hearing the wind and the scraping limb as I drifted back into sleep.

There was no real threat to my wellbeing at all. But that didn’t matter. The perception of a threat was there, and both psychologically and physiologically, my response was exactly the same as it would have been if there had been an intruder at the window.


[su_pullquote]The really interesting thing is that the response is the same whether the threat truly exists, or if the person just thinks it does.[/su_pullquote]













A bit of understanding about how our brain works can be useful here. The emotion control center of the brain is an almond-shaped bit of grey matter residing deep within each hemisphere of the brain called the amygdala. Among other things, the amygdala is responsible for the storage, processing, and expression of emotions. Fear is one of the emotions deeply connected to the amygdala (the other being anger).


What happens when we are afraid? The familiar fight or flight kicks in. There is actually a third F that shows up just as commonly in times of fear, but for some reason it gets very little pub when compared to its two more famous siblings. I’m sure you’ve heard the expression “frozen with fear.” That’s our lesser-known third F.

When the emotions are amped up, especially fear and anger, our feelings tend to outpace the brain’s judgment center (the cortex). This explains why our thinking can be a bit hinky when we are really mad or really frightened. If you’ve ever wondered why you don’t make good decisions or show less than your usual good judgment when you are fearful, now you know why.

[In this series of blogs, we will be exploring ways to both overcome and deal with fears as we encounter them in life.]


Dr Michael Ruth, Growth Resources, Personal Growth