Fear: What is it Good For?


Fear is a natural part of existence. In fact, fear is needed for survival. When danger is present, our bodies react by producing hormones to gear us into action mode. Our digestion system slows down since that is not required to survive an acute threat. Our eyesight sharpens so can we see the threat and plan our next move. Blood flow increases to our limbs which enables us to run away or fight if needed. Our body automatically responds to fear that is in alignment with increasing our chances to survive.

However, sometimes we feel fear when there is no real threat. For example, during my undergraduate graduation, I delivered a 60-second speech in front of thousands of people in the football stadium. I was incredibly nervous. I remember walking up to the podium in heels (maybe not the best idea!) with my legs shaking. I memorized the speech and even took a Communications class the semester prior to help with this speech. Yup, an entire semester-long class to help with a one-time, one-minute speech. I got through it…albeit with a long pause in the middle of a sentence. Later, friends told me they were worried I was going to forget my words and not finish.

And what if that did happen? What was I so afraid of happening? What was the threat? Perhaps I was afraid of slipping over my words, forgetting what came next, and people would laugh at me. Even if my worst-case scenario happened, I would still survive. In this scenario, I had a perceived threat (people laughing at me) yet it was not a true threat to my survival. However, my body doesn’t know the difference. Instead, my body responded to fear, regardless of the identified threat.

Anxiety is when our fear alarm system becomes activated frequently, without a real threat to our survival. Our hormones release, priming us to fight or flee, or sometimes even freeze. Most times, we naturally respond to anxiety by avoiding the threat. And fear becomes anxiety when it interferes with our functioning.

When was the last time you avoided something or someone who prompted you to feel anxious? Think about your natural reaction- most times we naturally respond to anxiety through avoidance. Because who would want to approach their fears? 

Caleb*  is afraid of flying and avoids planes altogether. He hasn’t been on a plane for five years and has driven across the country multiple times to avoid the risk of plane crashes (which is extremely unlikely to occur). Yet, he just accepted a job that requires him to travel. He has an upcoming trip planned for England. So what should Caleb do?

Caleb really wants a promotion. He can either decline the trip (but this may hurt his chances of leveling up) or he can learn to approach his fears of flying. By facing his fears, Caleb learns that he can tolerate the uncertainty of a plane potentially crashing while still flying across the world.

Exposure therapy is a very effective treatment for anxiety disorders (Abramowitz, Deacon, & Whiteside, 2019). During exposure therapy, Caleb learns that the unknowable about whether a plane will crash is actually tolerable. During therapy, he learns about the fight/flight system, how anxiety may trick his brain, and a clear plan to combat these fears.

Just as I somehow made my way across the stage many years ago, I hope that you will do one thing today to face your fears and move closer towards your goals.

*all identifying information has been anonymized