Accepting Difficult Emotions Part 2: Fear

This article is part of a series on accepting difficult emotions. I hope that this series will contribute to understanding and accepting some of the more challenging aspects of the shared human experience.


Fear is a familiar experience in response to a perceived threat. Fear is automatic, fast-acting, and creates profound changes in our body and experience. These changes can be primarily bodily such as racing heart, sweating, shaking/trembling, butterflies in the stomach/tight stomach, tingling in the hands/feet, and tightened muscles. They can also change our thinking, causing racing thoughts, a narrow focus on fear, mental confusion, and mental fogginess. Fear also causes behavioral changes, such as a strong urge to avoid or escape a situation. Fear can also lead a person to freeze up, like when you surprise a rabbit in your garden. At the highest levels, fear can turn into panic, in which many of the bodily symptoms of fear appear. Everyone has a fear response towards something different, whether in response to spiders or snakes, high places, introductory meetings, interacting with authority figures, or going on a first date. 

Purpose of the emotion

Fear is programmed into us to keep us safe. Human beings have two primary triggers for fear: threats to physical safety and threats to social inclusion. When you examine the emotion of fear, it may seem odd that social threats and physical threats are both fear triggers. For humans, this is because social relationships are so vital to us. A single human being is relatively helpless, but groups of human beings are strong. Fear keeps us safe and motivates us to maintain our social standing. It prevents us from doing things like running across the road without looking and keeps us from saying something that may get us fired at work. 

Related Mental Illness and How Fear Can Become a Problem 

Fear is a normal part of life, but it can cause enough distress and interfere with things to the point that it is a significant problem for some people. Fear is a component of many different psychological conditions, including generalized anxiety disorder, post-traumatic stress disorder, social anxiety disorder, body dysmorphia, obsessive-compulsive disorder, and phobias. In most of these disorders, fear makes people avoid living the life they want to live. Fear often leads to feelings of sadness as people restrict more and more of their lives to avoid feeling fear. 

Dealing With Fear

The best way to cope with fear is to confront it. When we avoid fear, we miss the opportunity to unlearn that we should be afraid of something. For example, if you have a fear of high places, you may avoid using ladders. So part of accepting, learning to cope with, and resolving fear involves doing the opposite of what most fear gives us the urge to do; avoid and escape. We all can think of examples of animals, places, situations, and things that we were once afraid of that no longer cause us fear. Typical childhood fears such as the dark and separation from parents get resolved because we usually approach these situations throughout childhood many times. 

How a Therapist May Help with Fear 

Fears that persist; fears that are very distressing and intense; and fears limiting your functioning in life may benefit from therapeutic intervention. It may be challenging to face your fears independently, and you may not believe that you can cope with intense fear without help. You also may not know or be able to clarify what is causing the fear. If you suffer from frequent panic attacks, you may never have learned effective ways to use your self-talk, learning about panic and breathing exercises to control symptoms of panic. Cognitive-behavioral therapy can provide various tools that teach you about your particular fears, allow you to cope with being in feared situations, and reduce the life interference from fear. Fear, however, is an integral part of daily life, and even the most successful therapy will involve accepting and experiencing fear. 


By: Christopher Grandits, PhD

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