Why do we feel fear?
Updated: Dec 16, 2019
The concept of fear is something that has been explored in all mediums, from Iron Maiden’s Fear of The Dark album to iconic characters such as Stephen King’s Pennywise the Dancing Clown and iconic Batman character the Scarecrow. But what causes us to feel fear? And how do we get rid of fear?
Phobias are actually a form of anxiety disorder, affecting approximately 10% of people in their lifetime. Most phobias originate in childhood but intensify into adulthood. Characteristics of phobias include; anxiety of feared object, disruption of day-to-day life, irrational fear and fear from exposure to stimulus.
There are many explanations from different approaches as to how phobias are acquired, whether it be from evolution, genetics or abnormal cognitive functioning. However, here I will explain the behavioural or environmental approach. This suggests that phobias are acquired through what is known as the two process model. The two stages being acquisition and maintenance. This works through the principles of classical and operant conditioning.
Classical conditioning is where a neutral stimulus becomes associated with the response of fear. This can be from witnessing or experiencing a frightening or unsettling event such as being bitten by a dog. This association of fear is then maintained through the process of operant conditioning. This is where the behaviour is reinforced. The behaviour can be achieved by a negative reinforcement where an individual will feel ‘rewarded’ by avoiding the stimulus as it reduces feeling that fear. For example, if someone is afraid of drowning, they are likely to avoid swimming pools or long exposure to water.
How are phobias treated?
For the behavioural approach, phobias are treated in two primary ways, systematic desensitisation and flooding. Systematic desensitisation therapy is is based on classical conditioning where the sufferer learns relaxation techniques and proceeds to face a hierarchy of exposure to the feared object or situation. This essentially ‘reverses’ the process to acquire the phobia as the suffer is taught to associate relaxation with the feared stimulus. For example, if someone is afraid of spiders they’d gradually build up exposure from seeing images to holding a spider.
Flooding is a more direct approach to treating phobias. In the therapy, the individual is faced with direct exposure to the feared situation. When faced with the situation, anxiety becomes extremely high. The purpose of flooding is that they cannot avoid the situation and the peaking anxiety levels cannot be maintained so will ease into a relaxed state.