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

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.

This question is:

Are we letting fear run our culture?

Over the last couple of years, we’ve seen a lot of fear and confusion dominate the narrative in politics, news, and entertainment.

And while some of it is merited, the uncomfortable truth is that the media often profits from provoking distress and emotional unrest. This is undoubtedly at the expense of our collective mental health.

Why? Because fear doesn’t help build a healthy immune system, it doesn’t help promote loving and healthy relationships, and it definitely doesn’t make for good decision-making. In order to live the most fruitful lives we can, and to grow and prosper as a global community, we need to learn how to calm our anxiety and overcome our biologically pre-programmed fears.

So what exactly is fear?

Fear is, at its most basic level, is one side of the emotional “fight-or-flight” system (the other side being rage).

While it is designed to work as a type of compass for safe and appropriate behaviour, it often isn’t very effective.

In modern life, fear typically serves as a psychological barrier to stop us from doing something dangerous. But because our environment has changed drastically over the last 20,000 years, the fear-provoking stimuli has also changed. As a result, there is an incongruence between the degree of actual threat and the size of the fear response. 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 and some practical ways you can triumph over them.

1. Fear of Injustice

Rage and fear are closely related; Rage is similar to a fear response in which the choice is to fight, as opposed to fleeing or freezing. Somewhat unsurprisingly then, we see that the majority one-on-one 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; also known as top-down processing. 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.

Recognise 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. Though it may take some time, a meditation practice can greatly strength your ability to control this type of processing.

2. Fear of Physical Pain

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

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

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

Paradoxically, those who are scared of physical pain experience more of it, meaning that the more you learn to overcome this fear, you less discomfort your brain will register.

Getting over the fear of pain is, somewhat unsurprisingly, a matter of simple conditioning. To do this, you need experience small amounts of physical pain, then exposing yourself to slightly more. However, this doesn’t have to be masochistic – you can start with simple discomforts like meditating and managing your anxieties, then move onto cold showers and short periods of fasting.

3. Fear of Death (or non-existence)

Ernest Becker’s 1973 work The Denial of Death theorised that human civilisation was just an elaborate response to the fear of our mortality, and an attempt to immortalise 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, familiarise 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 secular West has an unhealthy relationship with death, not seeing it as a natural part of life, but instead pushing it into the dark corners of our consciousness.

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

One way to begin to overcome the fear of death is to reflect on it and normalise it. A simple Buddhist practice involves watching a plant go through the process of growing and dying and recognising that you and others will undergo the same experience as that plant.

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 loss – which could manifest itself as trauma and even physically change the structure of the brain. There is even a name for this: Broken Heart Syndrome.

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 your life, you need to see the reward as being 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 colour 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 recognise 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

Published by

Ben Fishel

Ben is an author, psychotherapist and the creator of Project Monkey Mind, a blog that looks at Psychology and Spirituality to find practical wisdom for the digital age. He holds an MSc. in Applied Neuroscience from King's College London and a Bachelors in Psychology from the University of Queensland.

4 thoughts on “The Psychology of Fear: 6 Powerful Pre-programmed Human Fears and How to Overcome Them”

    1. 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!

  1. 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?

    1. 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!

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *