The Psychology of Fear: 6 Powerful Pre-programmed Human Fears and How to Overcome Them

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There’s a big question we all need to consider.

It’s not easy — in fact, it’s pretty confronting…. but it needs to be asked.

The question is:

Are we letting fear run our culture?

With the recent shock election result, recently we’ve seen a lot of fear and confusion dominate the mainstream narrative.

But the reality is the news often profits from the perpetuation of distressing emotions, and all the time at the expense of our collective mental health.

Fear doesn’t make for good decision-making. In order to live the most fruitful life you can, and to grow and prosper as a global society, we need to learn how to calm and overcome our biologically pre-programmed fears.

So what exactly is fear?

Fear is, at its most basic level, a chemical reaction that occurs in organisms and changes internal functions to moderate behavior.

However, while it is designed to work as a type of compass for safe and appropriate behavior, it often doesn’t work very well.

Fear serves as an invisible barrier that stops us from doing something dangerous. But because our environment has changed, this barrier has also changed. This is why an unexpected call from your boss can make your palms sweat as if we were about to be chased by a lion.

Fortunately, however, we can re-program our brains to our new environment and overcome these fears.

Here are 6 of the most powerful human fears along with simple ways you can triumph over them.

1. Fear of Injustice

Anger and fear are closely related; anger is similar to a fear response in which the choice is to fight, as opposed to fleeing or freezing. This is why most homicides are committed over feelings of injustice.

Because our brains evolved to co-operate in small-scale societies, we have ‘counter-dominance’ instincts to facilitate collaboration. In the case that we feel an injustice, we react strongly.

Overcoming the fear of injustice is difficult, as it requires rational thought and critical reflection. At the moment of perceived injustice we will believe that the threat is unfair, so overcoming this means having to put such an injustice in perspective. Recognize that if someone cuts you off in traffic, or pushes in front of you in a queue, their actions were unlikely to be a direct attack on you and any anger is just your own brain’s response, which you have the ability to calm and control.

2. Fear of Pain

Fear of pain is the first and most obvious type of fear we experience.

We fear pain because if we didn’t, we could end up harming ourselves physically.

Some fear of pain is normal, but most of us have an unhealthy fear of pain that stops us from living a life that would bring us much more joy.

Paradoxically, those who fear physical pain experience more of it, meaning that if you want to overcome your fear of pain, you will actually feel less of it.

Getting over the fear of pain is, somewhat unsurprisingly, a matter of simple conditioning. This means experiencing small amounts of physical pain, then exposing ourselves to slightly more. But this doesn’t have to be masochistic – you can start with simple discomforts like cold showers and short periods of fasting.

3. Fear of Death (or non-existence)

Ernest Becker’s 1973 work The Denial of Death theorized that human civilization was just an elaborate response to the fear of our mortality, and an attempt to immortalize everything. This is consistent with other ideas such as Terror Management Theory, and some of the thoughts of Buddhism and Stoicism.

Certain Hindu sects go as far as to meditate on a human skull to reflect on the impermanence of all things, familiarize themselves with it, and try and overcome their fear of death. We also see this in European Cathedrals, with skeletons featured under images of people as they look in what was referred to as ‘momento mori’ – a reminder of death.

The reality is that the West has an unhealthy relationship with death, not seeing it as a natural part of life, but instead shoving it into the dark corners of our consciousness.

One way to begin to overcome the fear of death is simply to reflect on it and normalize it. A simple Buddhist practice involves watching a plant go through the process of growing and dying and recognizing yourself and others in that plant.

Whereas pre-modern cultures had to face death every day and thus saw it as a regular part of life, modern civilization shields us from the process, creating a bubble of mystery and mythology around it that that leads to fear and insecurity.

4. Fear of Love & Intimacy

From a personal perspective, love and intimacy can be incredibly risky. For one, they require an investment of emotional capital that could end with a huge emotional loss – which would manifest itself as trauma and even physically change the structure of the brain.

The fear of this emotional pain is also exaggerated by mental projections of what could happen, such as the fear of someone hurting you, blaming you, or altering your sense of self.

There are a couple of things you can do to rise above this fear. Firstly, value love and intimacy above all else. In the same way you take any risk in life, you need to see the reward as worth it. Focus on seeing less of the downside, and more of the upside.

Secondly, focus on the present moment, making a conscious effort not to let worries about the past or fears of the future color your experience with another person.

5. Fear of Rejection

The fear of being rejected is an evolutionary mechanism, developed in the brains of nomadic hunter-gathers. It’s designed to encourage us to stay within social norms so we don’t get pushed out of the tribe and end up starving to death,

In the brain, physical and social pain pathways use the same neural substrates. Which means, from a neurological perspective, rejection physically hurts.

Research also shows those who are sensitive to one type of pain (e.g. physical), are also sensitive to the other (e.g. social). So overcoming your fear of physical pain can also aid you on the road to overcoming your fear of rejection and social pain.

Rejection is primarily a mental projection. So as with the fear of love and intimacy (and any other fear for that matter), focusing on what is happening now, as opposed to what could happen in the future or what has happened in the past, will go a long way to calming the storm.

It’s also important to recognize that rejection in the modern world is not the be-all and end-all, even though your brain thinks it is.

6. Fear of Failure and Success

Though we don’t like to admit it, one problem we encounter is when failure is more familiar to us than success. This causes our fear of success to be even stronger than that of failure.

Fear of failure and fear of success stem from the same root cause: fear of change. This is because the social part of our brains has placed us in a pecking order, with failure representing the potential to fall from grace and maybe even lose our access to resources, and success representing a challenge to the authority and also the possibility of failure.

As it is so deeply rooted in our psychology, overcoming fear is no doubt a difficult task. However, there are countless cases of great men and women throughout history who’ve found a cause worthy enough to inspire them to tackle their fear head on.

“Between stimulus and response, there is a space. In that space is our power to choose our response. In our response lies our growth and freedom.” – Viktor E. Frankl

What experience have you had with overcoming fears? Let us know in the comments!

  1. Lee B February 24, 2017 at 1:49 am

    Anything re overcoming phobias please? Anything related to the latter would be most appreciated. Thanks, Lee.

    • Ben Fishel February 24, 2017 at 2:55 am

      Hi Lee,
      Phobias can be really tricky, the best book I’ve come across for them seems to be The Anxiety and Phobia Workbook by Edmund Bourne – you might have heard of it, it’s very popular. If you’ve tried traditional CBT and are looking for something different, look into some NLP/Hypnosis type programs (maybe an audiobook to start with), such as those offered by Paul McKenna. There are no guarantees but I’ve heard a lot of positive things about them.
      Good luck!

  2. Todd February 25, 2017 at 6:38 pm

    I found this pretty useful as a description of the biological precursors to fear. What methods would you prescribe for combating the experience of fear when it is being generated in the moment by a condition that is not actually present, fear of political conditions, fear of imagined future conditions and so forth?

    • Ben Fishel February 26, 2017 at 10:06 pm

      Hi Todd,
      A lot of the time fear of the future stems from on overactive need to be in control. What we fear is not necessarily what will happen (because we can have no idea what will happen), but our inability to know what will happen. There is a technique called The Sedona Method – you can find the book on Amazon – which is essentially a series of questions that work at loosening your attachment to the needs for control, approval, security and separateness.

      If you practice running through those questions, you’ll notice that our fears are tied up in all of them, but fear of not being in control is often what is behind our anxieties around the future, at least in my experience. Hope that helps!

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