Negative Emotions: Fear and Anxiety

We talk a lot about emotions, but what exactly are emotions? Emotions are psychophysiological, cognitive and behavioral responses produced before an internal external event.

These reactions are involuntary and of biological origin. Emotions are the internal motor that pushes us to live, or rather to survive, since the main function of emotions is to procure our survival.

The part of the brain responsible for producing these reactions is the limbic system. Each emotion is different, but we can differentiate two major types of emotions: positive and negative emotions.

Emotions are divided into positive and negative according to whether they feel pleasant or unpleasant.  However, all emotion is necessary and the most important thing is to listen to them and know how to understand them, something that is not so easy with emotions considered negative.

Therefore, in this article, we will focus on some negative emotions: fear and anxiety. In this article you will find what negative emotions are, what they are and how they are controlled.

You may also be interested: Positive and negative emotions: definition and list

What are negative emotions?

In the first place, it is necessary to clarify that the division between positive and negative emotions is a popular classification and that the correct thing to do is to speak of adaptive and maladaptive emotions.

It is important to know that there are no good or bad emotions, but that all emotions are, first of all, necessary to survive. Emotions work like compasses guiding us towards what is best for us or our survival.

Therefore, all emotions can help us adapt to the situations and needs of each moment. All emotions, also those considered negative emotions, consist of a survival mechanism. Each emotion has its function and it is essential to listen to the emotion and understand it.

Once introduced the subject of negative and positive emotions let's see what are negative emotions. The considered negative emotions are those that produce an unpleasant feeling or negative feeling. Why do they produce an unpleasant sensation? To indicate that the situation we are facing has some danger, risk or challenge for us and invites us to have a behavior adapted to the needs of the situation.

For example, if we are facing a difficult test and we feel fear, it is totally normal, adaptive and good for us, because in this way we know that we are facing a complicated situation, which is a challenge. Fear makes us more prudent and cautious, we are alert to details. This will translate into our behavior, giving the exam the importance it deserves, let's dedicate more time to the study and be very attentive during the exam.

What are the negative emotions?

Among the considered negative emotions there are basic or primary emotions and emotions, secondary or complex emotions. The basic negative emotions considered are sadness, disgust, fear and anger. On the other hand, those considered secondary negative emotions or negative feelings are:

Loneliness, Despair, Culpability, Indifference, Apathy, Empty, Melancholia, Shame, Repentance, Disappointment, Aversion, Humiliation, Rejection, Insecurity, Anxiety, Ridiculous, Terror, Burden, Futility, Insufficiency, Concern, Frustration, Aggressiveness, Hate, Distrust, Fury, Hostility, Rage, Resentment, Jealousy, Pain.

The fear

As we have seen, one of the considered negative emotions is fear. Next, we will delve into what fear is, what types of fear there are according to Rachman, what causes fear and how to overcome fear if it is not an adequate reaction to the situation.

Definition of fear

Fear in psychology is one of the considered negative emotions. What is fear? Fear is a basic and universal emotion essential to ensure our survival that is activated by a stimulus that poses a danger. Fear consists of a signal that warns that a danger or challenge is approaching, a complex situation or something that may involve physical or psychological damage.

Types of fear

Canadian psychologist Stanley Rachman distinguishes between acute fear and chronic fear. In addition, fear can be adaptive or maladaptive.
  • The acute fear is caused by stimuli tangible and decreases when the trigger disappears or is avoided. For example, being afraid when you see a snake.
  • The chronic fear is more complex in terms of the situations that trigger it may be associated with tangible or sources. For example, the fear of being alone.
  • The adaptive or functional fear is the one that adjusts to the stimulus that causes it. It is considered useful. For example, the fear you feel when you are on the edge of a cliff causes you to move away and not run the risk of falling.
  • The maladaptive or dysfunctional fear is not adjusted to the stimulus that causes it. It is considered harmful. For example, the fear of heights prevents you from taking airplanes, elevators, going out onto the terrace of an elevated floor.

What causes fear?

The main triggers of fear are the perception of harm or danger, both physical and psychological. In addition, through the conditioning process, originally neutral stimuli, which are repeatedly associated with signs of real damage, end up producing an emotional response of fear. That is to say, although these stimuli objectively lack of danger, they become new triggers of fear specific to each person. It may be that this process is adaptive and useful for survival, however, sometimes produces fear reactions to situations without a real or significant danger, giving rise to phobias (irrational and persistent fears).

According to the American psychologist Richard Lazarus, before an event what we do is analyze it and categorize it as a threat or not a threat to us. If we have categorized it as a threat, we proceed to assess whether we have the necessary coping strategies to face what the situation requires. If we believe that we do not have the necessary resources to face a threat, the situation causes us fear.

Another factor that influences is to make an assessment in which it is estimated to have a low control capacity and future prediction of the situation. That is, you feel the emotion of fear when you think you cannot control or predict what will happen.

Effects and symptoms of fear

Fear is one of the most intense and unpleasant emotions that exist. The subjective effects of fear are apprehension, restlessness and discomfort. Its main characteristic is the sensation of nervous tension and concern for one's own safety or for health, usually accompanied by the sensation of loss of control.

The physiological effects of fear are the following:
  • Increase of cardiac frequency
  • Increase in systolic and diastolic blood pressure
  • Increase in cardiac contractile force
  • Reduction of blood volume and peripheral temperature (that causes the pallor and cold of the typical fear reaction of "staying frozen")
  • Increase in muscle tension
  • Increase in respiratory rate (artificial and irregular respiration)
  • Sensation of seizure

The anxiety

Next we will delve into what anxiety is, the types of anxiety and the effects and symptoms of anxiety.

Definition of anxiety

Anxiety is one of the considered negative emotions. What is anxiety? The definition of anxiety is a state of agitation and restlessness, similar to that produced by fear, but lacking a specific trigger, although sometimes it is associated with specific stimuli, as is the case of social anxiety. The distinction between anxiety and fear is that the fear reaction occurs in the face of real danger and the reaction is proportionate to it, while the anxiety is disproportionately intense. In addition, no dangerous stimulus is present physically.

Anxiety can lead to psychopathological disorders called anxiety disorders, such as generalized anxiety disorder or phobias. These are related to a reaction of excessive and inappropriate fear. Anxiety is the reaction that produces the greatest amount of mental, behavioral and psychophysiological disorders.

Types of anxiety

There are two types of anxiety reactions:
  • The specific anxiety: is raised by a particular stimulus that can be real or symbolic, but is not present or is imminent.
  • The unspecific anxiety: is not associated with certain stimuli.

What causes anxiety?

The origin of anxiety depends on multiple factors that are related to each other. The main factors are:
  • The personality. According to personality traits, a person may have more or less predisposition to anxiety.
  • Receive an over-protective educational style.
  • Live traumatic events or unpleasant experiences.
  • See traumatic events or unpleasant experiences experienced by other people.
The triggers of anxiety are not stimuli that can directly harm the person, but are learned reactions of threat, and are determined by personal characteristics. Therefore, anxiety is originated and maintained, to a large extent, by the effect of learning. According to the psychologist Stanley Rachman, the expectations of danger can be generated by means of three different learning processes:
  • Classical conditioning: when a neutral stimulus is associated with a stimulus that generates fear, the neutral stimulus can end up generating anxiety.
  • Observational learning: when you observe other people and you learn from their behavior and the events that happen to them.
  • Transmission of information that contributes to the emergence of danger expectations.
In order for anxiety to originate, situations have to be assessed as very important for the physical and mental well-being of the person and contrary to the goals that the person aims to achieve. They are also considered difficult to deal with, since they depend on something external. It is also valued that in this situation, a certain degree of urgency is necessary to act.

In the case of pathological anxiety, the mere memory of unpleasant situations or simply thinking about the future with a certain fear, are typical triggers of these reactions.

Effects and symptoms of anxiety

The subjective effects and symptoms of anxiety are: tension, nervousness, discomfort, worry, apprehension and can even reach feelings of dread or panic, difficulties for the maintenance of attention and concentration, together with intrusive thoughts.

As for the physiological activity of anxiety, the physiological effects are similar to those produced by fear, although less intense. Anxiety also produces pupillary dilation and increased sweating. There is also a significant increase in adrenal activity, which increases the secretion of adrenaline and noradrenaline and reduces catecholamine levels. It also increases the secretion of carbohydrates and lipids into the bloodstream.

All these changes in physiological activity can be so marked that they cause the person to perceive them, that is, they can produce sensations such as tachycardia, dizziness, flushing, stomach tension or sweating. The perception of such physiological alterations in turn becomes a trigger for one's anxiety.

Finally, fear and anxiety can lead to panic attacks, which are extreme conditions of blockage accompanied by hyperventilation, tremors, dizziness and tachycardia, as well as highly catastrophic feelings and total loss of control of the situation.

How to control negative emotions

Before any type of emotion, and especially with negative emotions and feelings, what is necessary is to learn to manage them. That is, accept them, listen to them and take advantage of the information they offer. What does not help with emotional management is repressing or denying emotions. In this article we focus on the considered negative emotions: fear and anxiety.

How to overcome maladaptive fear

Fear is a normal, healthy and necessary emotion that warns us of a danger. Fear motivates us to escape or fight, this response tries to promote the protection of the person. The problem comes when that fear is not appropriate to the situation or danger. That type of fear is called maladaptive or dysfunctional. In these cases, the danger is not real and the situation does not require a fight or flight response. Therefore, the body has a reaction that does not help us, but quite the opposite: it complicates our lives. In these cases, how to overcome fear?
  1. First, we must understand that the body reacts in response to the perception of danger in a situation. Therefore, it will be necessary to evaluate and restructure these thoughts and cognitions in this regard.
  2. Secondly, we must learn relaxation and breathing techniques that help to lower the excessive activation of the organism.
  3. Third, we must face the situation. Through cognitive-behavioral therapy techniques directed by a psychology professional, we will get accustomed and decrease the reaction to the feared stimulus. The most effective techniques to overcome maladaptive fear are systematic exposure and desensitization.
It must be taken into account that fear is the most relevant emotional reaction in negative reinforcement procedures and facilitates the learning of new responses that separate the person from danger. Therefore, when we avoid the stimuli that produce a dysfunctional fear, what we do is reinforce fear. That is, we are reminding the body that this is dangerous and each time the fear response is greater.

It should also be borne in mind that, in the fear response, the organism responds by mobilizing a large amount of energy to execute the response much more intensely than under normal conditions. However, if the reaction becomes excessive, the efficiency decreases, since the relationship between activation and performance maintains the inverted U shape.

How to control pathological anxiety

Anxiety is a state of hypervigilance that allows an exhaustive exploration of the environment since the threatening information is amplified and irrelevant information is disregarded. The problem comes when the anxiety is disproportionate and stops being useful to face the situation. When anxiety complicates the performance of daily activities that were previously carried out normally, surely we are facing an anxiety disorder. In these cases, it is essential to learn how to correctly handle anxiety.

How to control anxiety?

  1. First, we must understand that the body reacts in response to the perception of danger in a situation. Therefore, it will be necessary to evaluate the origin of the anxiety.
  2. Secondly, factors detected as predisposing factors (certain personality traits, certain educational style), triggers (events, situations, thoughts) or maintainers (actions that reinforce anxiety) must be worked on.
  3. Thirdly, through techniques such as cognitive restructuring, exposure, systematic desensitization and relaxation techniques directed by a psychology professional, anxiety is reduced. Specifically, it is possible to increase tolerance to uncertainty, get used to the symptoms of anxiety, change automatic thoughts and irrational beliefs, and so on.