Dealing with fear - zweikern Blog

Hands-on psychology: Dealing with fear

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Every one of us has already experienced many situations in which we intuitively reacted with physical excitement and mental alertness, also known as fear. On the one hand, it ensures our survival, restricts us under certain circumstances, and makes living together and dealing with people from other cultures more difficult. What this emotion is about, how it arises, and why it is expressed differently in different places, you can read in this article of the "Hands-on-Psychology" series by zweikern.

The history of fear

The term "fear" originally comes from the Greek word "agchein", which means "to close the throat" or "to choke". It thus describes a feeling that we all know and that, unlike fear, is not necessarily directed at a clear external danger. A distinction is made between anxiety as a character trait, i.e. "trait", and a momentary state called "state". Besides joy, surprise, anger, disgust, and sadness, it describes one of the six basic human beings' emotions, which are genetically predisposed and express themselves through specific characteristics of facial expressions and gestures.

In evolutionary terms, fear was an important survival mechanism that can put people in heightened alertness and increased strength. The perceived danger's type and intensity determine whether we flee or face a threat (fight-or-flight). This mechanism remains in place to this day when the triggers of fear have changed or expanded. Whereas in the past, the most likely threat was a confrontation with a predator or a poisonous snake, today it is often more the collision with a car or a firearm threat. But other, objectively not life-threatening, for example, social stimuli can also trigger fear reactions. In extreme cases, this can lead to anxiety or panic disorders.

The physiology of fear

Reading a person's mood has always been essential for humans' survival since we herd animals and depend on each other. If our counterpart smiles at us, a relaxed mood seems to prevail. However, if he shows surprise, worry, or anger, it is probably advisable to take a caring attitude, because danger could lurk. That is followed by the physical symptoms of fear, such as increased muscle tension and heart rate, dilated pupils and faster breathing. These processes mainly involve brain regions such as the amygdala, the hypothalamus and the autonomic nervous system. These determine both the activation of anxiety reactions as well as their decay.

The psychology of fear

If one takes a closer look at the causes of anxiety reactions, these can often be traced back to learning processes. Some stimuli such as spiders, predators, or faces with negative expressions instinctively cause fear in many people. That is because humans are genetically predisposed to interpret these stimuli as dangerous. Other sources of danger, which did not play a role in evolution, such as firearms or knives, trigger fear reactions only through learning processes of established stimulus-response chains.

A distinction is made between two different learning theories: Classical conditioning and operant conditioning. If an initially neutral stimulus (firearm) becomes a learned hazard stimulus due to a timely occurrence with a danger (injury) and the associated fear reaction, this is called classical conditioning. If, on the other hand, a classically conditioned fear stimulus is avoided, the fear is thereby alleviated, and the stimulus is therefore avoided in the future. We speak of the influence of operant conditioning. In addition to learning processes, cognitive assessments of dangers and their costs also determine whether fear arises.

Most people are familiar with feelings of fear, no matter where they come from. Depending on the intensity and triggers of the fear, people react differently to it. Where avoidance behavior attempts to avoid fear-inducing stimuli, repression ensures that these emotions are completely suppressed. Generalization spreads fear to different situations with similar stimuli, and coping behavior tries to find an adequate reaction.

The culture of fear

The extent to which fear and other emotions are openly shown and lived and how fear is dealt with varies from person to person and from culture to culture.

In Japan and other Asian countries, emotions' expression tends to be suppressed in contrast to more western cultures. Here, it is essential to "save face" at all costs and cover strong emotions, which could damage business and personal relationships. Therefore, people living in Asia tend to look at their counterparts' eye areas to determine their state of mind because this part of the face is more challenging to control than the mouth area. In countries such as the USA, emotions are lived and expressed openly, so the mouth area's movements to express emotions are very pronounced here. Negative emotions, such as fear, are also shown more openly.

It is also noticeable that Japanese people pay more attention to their voices than Westerners. The reason for this lies in the difficulty of hiding emotional clues in the voice. However, these differences can also lead to misunderstandings. If we are used to reading emotions on the face, it is easy to overhear linguistic clues that point to the actual emotional situation. Therefore, it is essential to be open to other cultures and their traditions and behavior to establish and maintain private and business contacts.

Conclusion on dealing with fear

Fear is a central, vital emotional impulse that affects all of our lives to a greater or lesser extent. There are various theories about how fear arises, how it is perceived, expressed, and interpreted. When dealing with fear, people's origins, traditions, individual experiences, and genetic predispositions play a significant role. If we are aware of our fears and their reasons, they can be perceived and controlled more consciously.


The fear has always been and will be the surest means of deception and enslaving people.

by Baron Holbach

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