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Fear Is Normal But Unwelcomed

Updated: Jun 8

"Strong feelings always seem to be spelled out on our faces, and once we look at someone, we can tell without any explanation whether he is angry, frightened, or at peace." Psychologist L.S. Vygotsky

Our faces are like billboards for all our emotions. They are powerful advertising, and they operate in real-time. Our best attempt to conceal our feelings is on full display, even if not with well-placed neon lights that dance to a beat or flicker on some set pattern. Fear is normal but unwelcome because of the intense feelings.


What is fear? It is an intense emotion triggered by what we consider an imminent threat to our safety and well-being. For example, if we see a snake on the ground or a bear attempting to climb over the fence while mowing our lawn, our fight-or-flight response is triggered, and we run inside our house.

The extreme nervousness we feel, the fact that we interpret the situation as imminently threatening, prompts us to seek protection from the danger. What we fear does not have to be extreme; for instance, some of us associate clowns with fun and goofy behaviors, but many people fear them.

Therefore, when we perceive something as imminently threatening, we may feel it in our chest. Our hearts beat so vigorously that it feels like we cannot breathe. A popular way of expressing this feeling is "My heart was in my throat, or my heart skipped a beat." The intensity of the fear can also make our limbs feel rubbery or heavy, leaving us feeling immobilized, thereby making us unable to move or react.

According to the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM-5), the symptoms associated with fear are either somatic (heart palpitations, shortness of breath, chest pains) or cognitive (fear of dying, fear of going crazy, difficulty focusing).

We sometimes use the word fearless to describe people we consider risk-takers, but it is not that they are braver than others. They recognize how fear affects them and utilize mindfulness principles.

Consequently, they learn to adjust accordingly in situations they consider threatening.

When we were kids, our fear of the boogieman was real. Before bed, we asked our parents to check the closet or under our beds to ensure the boogieman was not lurking in the dark. Our fear of the boogieman would cause us to become tentative about going to bed. Once in bed, some of us would cover our heads under our bedsheets with our eyes tightly shut until we fell asleep.

The closer it got to bedtime, our fear of the boogieman became more intense. Consequently, we needed reassurance from an adult that nothing was lurking in the dark. The darkness made us want or beg to sleep with the lights on because the boogieman operated in the dark.

A compromise between some of us and our parents was a nightlight. Others of us were more fearful of our parents' response to not going to bed, so we ended with double the fear of the boogieman and our parents.

Did you fear hanging your legs off your bed as a child? This fear was about something or someone grabbing your leg from under your bed. What about thinking of exposed tree roots grabbing your leg when you walk by?  

As we grew older, we outgrew the fear of the boogieman. We no longer needed a nightlight or to have our parents check our closet or under our bed for the boogieman. Still, we developed other fears that affected our functioning. For example, we began to fear failure, rejection, change, and the inability to provide for ourselves.

What is the function of fear? 

According to Psychologist Lev Vygotsky, our fears arise "from the instinct of self-preservation." We experience fear as an adaptive emotion to cope with dangerous or threatening environmental conditions. When we encounter fearful situations, we instinctively change our behaviors (run away, walk faster, avoid eye contact) and focus on self-preservation and safety.

In a research article published by the National Institute of Health, the lead researcher, Thierry Steimer, writes, "The main function of fear and anxiety is to act as a signal of danger, threat, or motivational conflict and to trigger appropriate adaptive responses."

Our tendency to avoid threatening situations can provide us with temporary relief. However, since fear can be irrational, we need to be mindful of what we are avoiding and why we are avoiding these things. The frequency and duration of our worries can certainly disrupt our daily lives.

However, learning to face our fears is not the same as becoming fearless because, rightly, we must avoid life-threatening situations to preserve life and limb. The concerns we must learn to face are the ones that affect our functioning. For instance, because we fear rejection, we won't initiate a conversation with a stranger or apply for a job we have spent years preparing for because we think we are not good enough or won't get an interview.

Empowering Minds. Inspiring Lives.

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