Understanding Fear

“So, first of all, let me assert my firm belief that the only thing we have to fear is…fear itself — nameless, unreasoning, unjustified terror which paralyzes needed efforts to convert retreat into advance.” ~ FDR

Fear is a biological reaction that can be defined as an anxious feeling that comes from expectations of an imagined event or experience. Fear is information our bodies and minds send to us to help keep us safe from dangerous situation. As we begin to understand how fear works and what it is causing the physiological reaction we can start to take control of the situation and not only overcome our fears but use them to motivate us and help us become our best selves.

Our bodies experience fear in basically the same way no matter the fear inducing stimulus. How we respond to fear can be broken down into fight or flight. While this typically refers to an acute stress response it can also be used when talking about longer term fear responses. Beyond the hyperarousal or adreanal response of the sympathetic nervous system are the way we behave in fearful situations. Some people will effectively run and hide while others may even have an anger response to fearful stimuli.

While not covering every possible fear, these five basic fears form the building blocks for understanding our own fears. Dr. Albrecht states that these are the only types of fears and that all fears are either subclasses under these or combinations of them. Use them to understand how you may be motivated by fear, then take control of you your fear to live your best life. Use the information from the stages of fear to not only recognize where you are but how to overcome the fear at that stage. You may even be able to help others overcome their fears by understanding where they are in the four stages and what will help them most to get through or overcome that stage. Don’t let your fears control you, learn to control yourself by understanding your own fears and how to use them to your advantage.

Episode Breakdown

Stages of Fear

Fear in and of itself is not problematic, it’s when we allow it to gain control over us and influence our lives that it is an issue. These four stages show the progression of fear from initial concept to lasting effects.


Fear starts in your own imagination, when you have exaggerated expectations of the outcomes of something. It’s one thing to prepare for the worst case, fear starts to take hold when you begin to expect the worst case in all situations. Fear is designed as a protective warning, however it becomes a problem when you let your imagination get ahead of real life events. To avoid letting fear progress allow yourself to imagine or think of the worst case, then focus on how you will handle the situation. Don’t ruminate on the problem, look to the solution.


Fear comes in two separate yet intertwined forms, mental and physical. Imagination is the initiation of fear, but the next mental step is rumination which creates a negative feedback loop that prevents you from thinking in realistic terms. Physically it can manifest as rapid heart and respiratory rate, shakiness or jitters, and tightening of the vocal cords to create a higher pitch in your voice. This is the point where relaxation and mindfulness techniques come into play. It is amazing how you can affect your thought process by gaining control of your physical responses such as lowering your heart rate through meditation.

Paralysis and Acceleration

Hyper-focusing on the feeling of fear or the physical manifestations leads to paralysis and acceleration of those feelings. This is what FDR meant when he was talking about fear being the only thing to fear, the paralysis that comes from fear or the inability to do anything about it. On the other side of the spectrum, yet just as dangerous is acceleration: doing strange, useless, and sometimes superstitious things to prevent the thing you fear. This can be rather disastrous in the moment as the only way to overcome it is to wait it out and it doesn’t often go away quickly.

Creating Memories

The final stage of fear is solidifying the events or emotions in your memory. To some extent everything you experience becomes a memory, the strong the emotions related to that event or the more connections you have to it will determine how well you remember it and how much it influences you. Fear memories help to keep you safe, especially from similar experiences to ones that induced fear. This helps you to avoid known dangers. This stage is the most insidious as rather than paralyzing you in the moment it can paralyze your future actions. It can get out of control and prevent you from living your best life. While it is good and normal to have fear of dangerous situations, you need to face your fears or memories of fears and overcome them so that you are not trapped by them.

Five Basic Fears

Psychologist Dr. Karl Albrecht lists five basic fears from which all other fears are derived.


You might think of this as the fear of death, while a subset of this fear it is much more. This is the fear of no longer existing, a fear of complete annihilation not just dying but being completely wiped out of existence. Dr. Albrecht states that it brings up a “primal existential anxiety” in normal people. It is the sense of dread you get looking down from a cliff or tall building. It is part of the thrill from cliff diving, bungee jumping, even roller coasters. From this come the fears of heights, fatal diseases, or darkness.


This is the fear of losing a part of yourself, your body. It could be any part, not just limbs or sensory organs. It is not just limited to losing it, the fear includes losing functionality of a part of the body or having bodily boundaries invaded. Fear of mutilation is exploited in a lot of horror movies, especially ones like SAW. Mutilation also contains the fear of things like bugs, spiders, snakes as well as larger animals that can do serious bodily harm.

Loss of Autonomy

Containing claustrophobia, fear of loss of autonomy takes physical shape in a fear of being trapped, imprisoned, paralyzed, smothered, or otherwise immobilized or restricted. However, loss of autonomy goes beyond physical autonomy into social interactions and even relationship. This includes fear of being controlled by circumstances, situations, or other people beyond our control or influence.


Humans have a strong need to belong, we are tribal creatures who desire to be in a group of our peers. Separation is the fear of losing connection to the tribe, or losing the respect of friends or peers. It is a fear of rejection or being abandoned by others. The fear of separation goes all the way back to the early days of human history when being kicked out of the tribe meant more than loss of friends or stature, but death. This fear can also cause relationships to last longer than they should because one person is afraid of what they will lose when ending the relationship, or fear of separation because of disagreeing or arguing. On the other side, this can lead to a fear of intimacy, avoid being hurt by not putting yourself into a situation to be hurt.


Feelings of shame, victimization, worthlessness, and humiliation define the fear of ego-death. It is the fear of loss of integrity or of destroying your own ideas of being a lovable, capable, or worthy person. While sometimes used as humor, humiliation can be devastating causing a person to want to crawl into a hole and disappear. Shame for doing something wrong is appropriate to an extent, however when taken to an extreme fear of ego-death leads to fear of failure, making mistakes, or even fear of any criticism. Public speaking is a big fear that many people have which falls under this as it is related to fear of humiliation or being seen as a fraud.

Tricks of the Trade

Fear and exhilaration are similar. Try to get to exhilaration if you can.

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