• AscendPsychology

What is Fear?

Updated: Dec 28, 2020

Imagine you’re walking home late one evening, down a particularly dark and silent street. You are startled when you hear a sudden sound of movement behind some parked cars a few feet ahead. You hear rustling sounds. Your heart starts beating faster and you quicken your pace, so that you can get as far away as possible from there. What if someone is waiting to rob you? Or worse!

You march ahead quickly, and as you sneak a nervous glance behind; you spy the source of the rustling sounds - a couple of scruffy cats foraging for food in a pile of garbage near one of the cars. You breathe a sigh of relief and hurry on home.

What was just described above is a fear response, one that all of us have experienced every so often.

According to the American Psychological Association (APA), ‘Fear' is a basic, intense emotion aroused by the detection of imminent threat, involving an immediate alarm reaction that mobilizes the organism by triggering a set of physiological changes. For example, one may experience a rapid heartbeat, trembling, a shortness of breath, sweating, tensing of muscles, chills. Psychological symptoms experienced would be dread, feeling overwhelmed or feeling as if one is out of control.

While traditionally considered a “negative” emotion, fear actually serves an important role in keeping us safe. Over the course of evolution, fear helped humans and animals alike to steer away from dangerous situations, most likely involving wild animals and violent forces of nature, therefore giving them a higher chance of survival. They passed on their genes to their offspring who too would have this trait of fear. The desire to avoid danger has subsequently been beneficial to the survival of humans and animals.

In today’s day and age, sources of our fears are much more different, and not as deadly or life threatening. Our fears are more related to manuring heavy traffic jams, class presentations or big scary injections. The fear does of course help us navigate our world and help us make decisions appropriate to our survival in dangerous situations.

When faced with a threat we may fight, flight or freeze. To illustrate this point, let me take you back to the scene at the silent dark street. Now, imagine that you actually saw something creeping around near the cars, seemingly stalking you. And no, it wasn’t a cat, but an individual. You might choose the FIGHT response and confront the attacker so as to defend or stand up for yourself, or run away screaming for help, which is the FLIGHT response. Or you might see that the attacker is not just armed, but they are also broader and taller, and you figure that it might make things worse for you if you try to physically defend yourself. You then FREEZE, thinking you could minimize sudden movements or duck out of view and attract any unwanted attention.

Like other primary Emotions such as disgust, surprise, anger; fear appears to be universal, because people express and recognize it across all cultures of the world. According to Damasio, these emotions are innate and primarily controlled by the amygdala and anterior cingulate of the limbic system.

In fact, the amygdala has often been referred to as the ‘fear centre’ or the ‘hub of a fear circuit’. This structure has been found to be involved in recognition, expression and experience of fear, as evidenced by various researches.

When a threat shows up, it activates the lateral nucleus of the amygdala. Because of its links to the central nucleus of the amygdala it causes defensive behavioral reactions, such as freezing, as well as defensive physiological reactions. Whereas, defensive actions - for example avoidance - are controlled through the links from the lateral amygdala to the basal amygdala, and further to the nucleus accumbens.

It has been observed that amygdala damage or damage to areas of the temporal lobe including the amygdala may lead to deficits in fear responses. It may also cause individuals to display hypervigilance due to perceived fear in others.

We’ve all heard the phrase ‘Paralyzed with fear’. And that is how extreme fear can be debilitating and may prevent the individual from doing things they’d like to. For some, fear can feel intolerable and they may take great pains to avoid the emotion at all costs. And then, there are others who may get pleasure from experiencing fear – for example, by watching a horror film or participating in extreme sports.

Persistent fear can sometimes be referred to as anxiety especially when the worry is constant and there is no plausible reason or source of the worry. And when we are unable to correctly identify the trigger, it prevents us from removing ourselves, or even the actual threat from the situation.

Although anxiety might be regularly experienced by a lot of people, it can meet the criteria for a disorder if it is recurrent, persistent, intense, and interferes with daily life.

If/when this happens, it may become necessary to seek out the help of a professional to help the individual process the fears and learn how to cope with them. It may also be helpful to recognize one’s fear responses and if they are persisting more than they should. For example, if one is experiencing sudden worry and palpitations with no plausible reason in sight.


1. Zillmer, E. A., Spiers, M. V., & Culbertson, W.C. (2008). Principles of neuropsychology (2nd ed.). Belmont, CA : Thomson/Wadsworth.

2. Adolphs, R. (2013). The biology of fear. Current Biology, 23(2), R79-R93.

3. LeDoux, J. (1998). Fear and the brain: where have we been, and where are we going?. Biological psychiatry, 44(12), 1229-1238.

4. LeDoux, J. E. (2014). Coming to terms with fear. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, 111(8), 2871-2878.

5. LeDoux, J. E., & Pine, D. S. (2016). Using Neuroscience to Help Understand Fear and Anxiety: A Two-System Framework. The American journal of psychiatry, 173(11), 1083–1093.

6. Blaustein, M. E., & Kinniburgh, K. M. (2018). Treating traumatic stress in children and adolescents: How to foster resilience through attachment, self-regulation, and competency. Guilford Publications.

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