Understanding and Working with Fear

30 June 2022

What is fear?

Fear is a fundamental reaction that has biologically evolved to protect organisms from perceived threat to their existence. Fear is our survival response. Fear is one of the seven universal emotions (anger; contempt; disgust; fear; joy; sadness and surprise) experienced by humans and arises with the threat of harm, either physical; emotional; psychological; real or imagined. While traditionally considered a “negative” emotion, fear serves a vital role in keeping us safe as it mobilizes us to cope with potential danger.

How we physically process fear

Like many other basic emotions, fear causes physiological reactions in our body. Fear starts in the brain and the physical effects throughout our body help us adjust so we can have the most effective response to a dangerous situation. On an instinctual level, our body prepares us to fight or flee.

Fear starts in the part of the brain called the amygdala. According to Smithsonian magazine, “A threat stimulus, such as the sight of a predator, triggers a fear response in the amygdala, which activates areas involved in preparation for motor functions involved in fight or flight. It also triggers release of stress hormones and sympathetic nervous system.”

Because of the very automatic nature of the fear response, we usually experience it in three stages:

  • Freeze: This reaction is rooted in our evolutionary response to keep us hidden from a predator. Your initial jump and stop response to triggering stimuli is automatic, meaning if you are truly afraid, you cannot stop it.
  • Run: Our next instinct is to get away from whatever is causing our fear. Adrenaline helps you move quickly away from the trigger.
  • Fight: If you cannot get away from what is causing your fear, your response is to fight. Adrenaline helps you in this stage as well.

Of course, these days, when we feel fear, we do not often have the need to hide from a predator, flee or fight. Still, the physical response we experience is the same.

  • Release of stress hormones
  • Adrenalin rush
  • Increased heart rate
  • Shallow and rapid breathing
  • Sweating and/or chills

How to work through fear

Investigate and evaluate the risks: This can be as simple as basic research. Often, we fear what we do not know or understand. Take flying for example: you have developed this fear from seeing articles or movies depicting horrific crashes. This then leads to confirmation bias whereby you seek out further information that reinforces this thinking. By taking an objective

approach and weighing up information about the safety of flying, the basic physics, and statistical data, you could work towards managing the anxiety and fear around flying. This is an example of how we might still be able to do something we fear if we can manage the surrounding anxiety and recognise that what we fear does not pose a great danger.

Therapy: involving a therapist can help as you are able to unpack the fears with support and guidance. A therapist, particularly a cognitive behavioural therapist can help with de-sensitizing your fears, taking it one small step at a time. Treatment might include talking about the specific fear, managing the anxiety around it, and even practicing relaxation techniques (this might be box breathing). Psychoanalysis, or ‘talking therapy’ might help delve into the origins of the fear, working to find the root cause. Therapy can include planning, creating small steps with a therapist to tackle the fear/s.

Breathing: scientifically speaking, there is a spike in theta and beta brain waves when we experience fear. Box breathing is about engaging the parasympathetic nervous system and creating alpha waves to restore balance and stability. This is the state where our bodies rest and relax – our heart rate slows, and our blood pressure lowers. The more time we can spend in this state, the more balanced and calm our bodies and minds are. This state of non-arousal is when our brain produces alpha waves, those seen in a restful awake state.

Box breathing basics:

1. Exhale over 4 counts

2. Hold for 4 counts

3. Inhale for 4 counts

4. Hold for 4 counts

5. Repeat

Useful links:




Written by Leila Rahimtulla