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May 2017
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What is fear?

The term ‘fear’ refers to states of different emotional intensity that range from physiological polarity, like uncertainty, worry, unease or hesitation, to pathological polarity, like anxiety, terror, phobia or panic.

The term fear is used to express both current and future emotions, a pervasive and unexpected condition, or a simple state of worry and uncertainty.

The subjective and phenomenal experience of fear is represented by a strong sense of unpleasantness and an intense desire to avoid an object or situation deemed dangerous. Other constants of the experience of fear are tension, which can go as far as becoming immobility (being paralysed by fear), and only remembering select parts of the scary experience. This focus of consciousness does not only concern the external perceptive field but also the internal field of thoughts, which become static and steady. The outcome of this is usually being negative, insecure and wanting to run away.

Where does fear come from? The results of many empirical studies have lead to the conclusion that, potentially, every object, person or event can be considered as dangerous, therefore anything can induce the emotion of fear. The variability is endless and a threat can even be generated by the absence of an expected event and can vary from moment to moment, even for the same person. Essentially, fear can be of an innate or learnt nature, and the fundamental factors appear to be perception and evaluation of whether the stimulus is dangerous or not.

Innate fears

These originate from

  • many intense physical stimuli like pain or sound;
  • objects, events or strangers because the individual does not know what to expect nor how to deal with it/them;
  • dangerous situations for the survival of an individual or an entire species; for example, height, dark, cold, being abandoned by a significant figure;
  • circumstances in which one must interact with aggressive people or animals.

Examples of typically innate fears are: the fear of strangers, the dark, certain animals (spiders and snakes) and seeing amputated parts of the body.

Learnt fears

These concern an infinite variety of stimuli which come from direct experiences and which are shown to be distressing and dangerous. The universal mechanism responsible for acquiring learnt fears is called conditioning and it can turn any neutral stimulus into a phobic stimulus through mental association of something that was originally a source of fear, in terms of time and space.

How does the body express fear?
Fear is expressed in many ways: eyes wide open, half-open mouth, frowning, and so on. This state of muscle tension in the face represents the expression of fear which is recognised even in the youngest of children and in various cultures.
Psycho-physiological changes seem to be different from those associated with intense states of fear, like panic or a phobia, and those associated with worry or anxiety. More precisely, an acute state of fear  and a sudden sign of panic or phobia are accompanied by activation of the parasympathetic nervous system, thus blood pressure, body temperature, heart rate and muscle tension are all lowered and we begin to sweat abundantly and our pupils dilates. The result of all of this is a sort of paralysis and therefore our flight or attack response is not an active response. The function of this immobility, induced by a feared stimulus, seems to be to defend the individual from aggressive attacking behaviour which would be triggered by flight or movement. Paradoxically, in extreme cases, this reaction can lead to death by parasympathetic cardiovascular collapse. Less intense states of fear activate the sympathetic nervous system, thus hairs stand on end, more blood flows to the muscles and both muscle tension and heart rate increase so the body is so ready for action, which is aimed at attacking or escaping. 

What are the functions of fear?  
Fear certainly plays a positive role, just like physical pain, signalling a state of emergency and alarm and preparing the mind and the body for a reaction that is manifested as attack or flight. Moreover, in every species that has been studied, the expression of fear carries out the function of warning other group members about the presence of danger and asking for help and aid. From a biological and evolutionist point of view, subjective experience (through the processes of memory and learning), behaviour (regardless of whether one flies, is paralysed or attacks) and psycho-physiological changes (parasympathetic or sympathetic nervous system activation) aim at conserving and keeping the individual or species alive. Of course, if the fear is extreme and becomes excessively intense, thus becoming anxiety, phobia or panic, the basic function of fear is lost and it turns into a psychopathological symptom.

How to recover from fear
Fear, as previously mentioned, has an extremely important function: its purpose is survival. For example, remembering that a certain type of animal is dangerous, because it is aggressive and ferocious or poisonous, is undoubtedly an advantage. In addition, preparing your body for a furious attack or a sudden escape can, in some cases, guarantee survival. Lastly, a state of paralysis, caused by fear, can also save us when a ferocious aggressor is waiting for the smallest of reactions. Therefore, treatments against fear are only appropriate for cases in which fear has become a pathological condition, such as panic attacks or anxiety in the face of something that is absolutely not dangerous.

There are two types of treatments for pathological fear:

  • the behavioural approach, which aims at getting rid of the symptoms of fear through familiarisation and habituation techniques based on the mechanism of conditioning;
  • the cognitive approach, which aims at getting rid of the causes of the fear, thus work is carried out on the perception and evaluation of the stimuli or events labelled as ‘dangerous’.

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