What is Fear in Psychology?

What is fear in psychology?
We have all felt the paralyzing sensation produced by fear, because it is a normal and natural emotion in many animals, including human beings. But sometimes it can become an obstacle. In this Transkerja.com article, what is fear in psychology, we talk about it. You can better understand what fear is and how it works, what it is for and how to differentiate "good" fear from "bad" fear. You can also discover the main psychological techniques to overcome fear.

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What is fear? Definition

Fear is one of the basic emotions and also considered a primary and universal emotion. Fear is an emotion that generates great consequences on the organism and that has been found in people of all the cultures that have been studied. Fear is born in our brain, which causes the alarm reaction of the organism. The main brain structure responsible for the fear response is the amygdala.

Sometimes, feeling fear is unpleasant, which is why it has been labeled as a negative emotion. Nothing is further from reality, because feeling the emotions is always positive, whatever it may be. All emotions, well-regulated and managed are good for us. All emotions have their reason and exercise their function. Then, you will ask:

What is the use of fear?

As we said, if fear is present in all human beings, it's for something! Fear is a mechanism to adapt to the environment and its dangers. Its function is to protect us from situations of risk. Fear is activated when it detects a threat, causing us to withdraw from this situation. This threat can be for our physical integrity or our life, as well as for our reputation, our self-esteem, self-concept or our security, depending on the idea and beliefs we have about it. So fear is an emotion that reacts depending on our mental filters. In short, fear helps us to get away from an event that we are not prepared to face.

What would happen if fear did not exist? As we have seen, fear has a fundamental function: to ensure our survival. If we were not afraid, we would die. Without fear, we would act recklessly and put our lives in danger, so we would probably die.

For all this, fear has a great importance. It acts as a regulator of our behavior, warning us of the dangers. As a prudent mother would do: fear takes care of us.

Types of fear in psychology

Fear in itself is positive and essential, but sometimes it is a problem. When is fear a problem? When the fear we feel is dysfunctional, that is, when the situation that generates fear is not a real danger, when the consequence of feeling that fear is even worse for us than what would happen if we did not feel fear. Therefore, we can differentiate two types of fear:
  • Functional fear, which is activated in the face of real danger and helps us to survive. Functional fear is adaptive because it allows us to adapt our behavior to situations, to our benefit. This fear is useful because it makes us alert to a situation that carries some risk and act on our behalf in dangerous circumstances. For example, the one that makes us not walk in the middle of the highway or by the edge of an abyss, or the one that makes us go to the doctor.
  • Dysfunctional fear is that which hinders our life and our normal performance. It is not adaptive or useful for us. For example, when there is a strong fear of airplanes and that transport is not used, with the consequence of doubling the time of displacement, in addition to reducing comfort. This fear is not due solely to a real danger, but to the set of experiences and beliefs that form the cognitive filter of a person, through which reality is observed and interpreted.

Overcoming fear: psychological techniques

How can we overcome fear? It is important to know that fear does not disappear, because it is a necessary emotion that goes with us, but we can learn to use it in our favor. The techniques of cognitive behavioral therapy are effective in learning to regulate and manage adaptively emotions, including fear. The important points to overcome fear are:

Cognitive restructuring to overcome fear

In the first place, we can influence these irrational beliefs so that the cognitive filter allows a more adaptive interpretation of reality. This is achieved by detecting automatic thoughts and irrational beliefs, questioning them and replacing them with more adaptive thoughts.


On the other hand, we must stop avoiding situations in order not to reinforce, perpetuate and aggravate fear. Faced with a dysfunctional fear, the situation activates a feeling of intense and annoying fear. When we avoid this situation, the discomfort automatically diminishes. This feeling of relaxation and decreased discomfort serves to reinforce avoidance behavior. This is the way in which fear is reinforced, maintained and even aggravated and generalized with the passage of time. For this reason it is important to correctly manage the dysfunctional fear as soon as possible, so that a phobia does not develop. There are different psychological techniques to face fear, the most used are:

The techniques of exposure. They consist in a controlled and prolonged exposure to the stimulus that activates the fear until activation decreases. The exhibition can be in imagination, live or through technological devices of virtual reality. We must not only expose ourselves to the stimuli, but also to the symptoms that psychophysiological activation produces (increase in heart and breathing rate, sweating, tremor, etc.) so as not to develop fear of one's own fear.

The systematic desensitization. It consists in exposing oneself to the antigenic stimuli in a gradual and progressive way, according to a previously established hierarchical list, with the aim of reducing psychophysiological activation.