The Fear Factor I

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the purpose of fear is to promote survival!

The Fear Factor

Fear is a distressing emotion no matter how you choose to see it, yet it is one of the most powerful emotions because of the effect it has on the mind and body. Although fear emanates from the mind, it triggers a strong physical reaction in the body. 

It is expressed in common English language in various ways as: dismay, fright, terror, panic, anxiety, cowardice, trepidation, dread, apprehension, etc.

We have all experienced this emotion at one point or the other in our lives. Many have turned fear into motivation and gone on to achieve great strides. While a good many have had their lives, dreams, aspirations and hope crippled or cut short due to voracious fear.

It is however important to mention that fear is our survival response mostly because it is triggered by a perceived threat. It is a basic survival mechanism that signals our bodies to respond to danger with a fight or flight response. As such, it is an essential part of keeping us safe.

However, when people live in constant fear, whether from physical dangers in their environment or threats they perceive, they can experience negative impacts in all areas of their lives and even become incapacitated.

Fear = Survival?

The science of “fear” explains that it basically prepares us to react to danger. Once we sense a potential danger, our body immediately releases hormones that:

  • Slow or shut down functions not needed for survival (such as our digestive system)
  • Sharpen functions that might help us survive (such as eyesight). Our heart rate increases, and blood flows to muscles so we can run faster.

In the course of human evolution, the people who feared the right things survived to pass on their genes. In passing on their genes, the trait of fear and the response to it were selected as beneficial to the race.

To put this in modern context, most of us are no longer fighting (or running) for our lives in the wild, but fear is far from an outdated instinct. It serves the same purpose today as it did when we might run into a lion while carrying water back from the river.

Only now, we’re carrying a wallet and walking down city streets. The decision not to take that shortcut through the deserted bush at midnight is based on a rational fear that promotes survival. Only the stimuli have changed — we’re in as much danger today as we were hundreds of years ago, and our fear serves to protect us now as it did then.

In short, the purpose of fear is to promote survival!

So how did fear become so much of a negative emotion?

Fear can last for a short time and then pass, but they can also last much longer and you can get stuck with them. In some cases, they can take over your life, affecting your ability to eat, sleep, concentrate, travel, enjoy life, or even leave the house or go to work or school. This can hold you back from doing things you want or need to do and can also affect your health.

There are many types of fear.

Whilst some of our fears are basic survival and pain-avoidance, many fears – as we know – are literally in the mind (how many of you are creeped out by the picture of the slithering black snake?)

There are biological fears based on threat to life, social fears based on threat to status and self-worth, and existential fears that are brought on by contemplation of the human condition. But I would share the classification of fear as explained by Dr. Karl Albrecht.

Dr. Albrecht believes there are ONLY these 5 types of fears! And that many of our fears are a combination of the types of fears identified above.

Here are Dr Karl Albrecht’s 5 Types of Fears:

  1. Extinction

The fear of annihilation, of ceasing to exist. This is more than just a “fear of death” or how we might die – it strikes at the very heart of our fear that we would simply no longer BE.

Dr. Albrecht calls it existential anxiety. It’s the panicky feeling we get if we look over the edge of a tall building, or when we think too deeply about a deadly disease!

Examples of triggers include: The dark, flying, heights, fatal diseases.

  1. Mutilation or Bodily Invasion

The fear of losing a part of our body, having our body’s boundaries invaded, or of losing a natural function. This would be any fear where we feel physically unsafe or under attack.

Examples of triggers include: In this pot would fall our anxieties about creepy crawlies like spiders or snakes, animals like dogs or sharks – and any animal you believe to be harmful. Also anxiety about crowds, needles, germs, surgical procedures or having to make a trip to the dentist!

  1. Loss of Autonomy

The fear of being restricted, confined, trapped, suffocated. As Dr. Albrecht puts it “the fear of being immobilized, paralyzed, restricted, enveloped, overwhelmed, entrapped, imprisoned, smothered, or otherwise controlled by circumstances beyond our control.”

When it’s a physical fear it’s called claustrophobia, but our fear of being smothered, restricted, unable to take care of ourselves or dependent on others can also apply to situations in our lives – or our relationships.

Examples of triggers include: Commitment, poverty, debilitating illness, aging. In addition, situations where we feel helpless or powerless, for example at work, your boss tells you to do something you don’t want to do, and refuses to discuss it with you e.g. when you have to do it or lose your job. It leaves you feeling trapped and helpless. Most parents will also feel this fear from time to time – overwhelmed, trapped and restricted, because they have a responsibility (children) that can’t be given up!

  1. Separation, Abandonment or Rejection

The fear of abandonment, rejection – we humans have a strong need to belong. This is my biggest fear. From a young age I have feared upsetting people for fear of being rejected and/or abandoned. I even have a visual of floating alone in outer space, never to see another living being ever again! From an evolutionary perspective, when an early human was kicked out of the tribe, they likely would have died. Dr. Albrecht refers to a “loss of connectedness; of becoming a non-person—not wanted, respected, or valued by anyone else.” which literally threatens our wellbeing and survival.

Examples of triggers include: When a relationship ends – a friendship, divorce or death of a loved one. Sometimes when a relationship ends, we also lose an extended set of friends too increasing that loss of connectedness.

This type of fear can also be triggered when a relationship deepens and with that an experience of vulnerability – what happens if this person I rely on leaves me – so a fear of intimacy! An argument or disagreement with someone important to us – at home or at work. Also, have you noticed that when someone ignores us or gives us the ‘silent treatment’ this often feels worse than being yelled at?

Triggers can also be less obvious – an extended separation, even a voluntary one can subconsciously trigger this type of fear.

  1. Humiliation, Shame or Worthlessness

Dr. Albrecht called this type of fear, “Ego-death”. We all need to feel lovable, worthy of love and of value in the world order to have healthy relationships with others – and with ourselves. Shame can be an excruciating feeling – something many of us will go great lengths to avoid. Not only can it leave us feeling physically sick, make our skin crawl or flush or in extremes give us stabbing pains, we want to crawl into a hole and disappear.

When we are shamed and humiliated it can threaten or destroy our belief in our worth, our lovability and our value in the world. Without that, we are nobody. Literally. The supposed number 1 fear of public speaking would fall into this category!

Examples of triggers include: Failure, criticism, bullying, victimization, mistakes, public speaking. There are genuine shame triggers like when we’re caught in a lie or do something considered wrong by society.

But, feelings of shame and worthlessness are often triggered be an expectation of judgement or criticism (from ourselves or others) when we mess up – losing one’s job, or if we left our house unlocked and got burgled. In addition, sometimes when we are the victim – whether it’s rape, bullying or slander, we are left feeling ashamed and worthless – literally worth “less”. 

Finally, depending on how sensitized we are, debilitating shame can even be triggered by seemingly small things like forgetting to send a birthday card, being told we’re selfish (whether it’s true or not!) or burning the dinner.

The following are some of the most common phobias prevalent among people in North America:

  1. Arachnophobia (Fear of spiders)
  2. Ophidiophobia (Fear of snakes)
  3. Acrophobia (Fear of heights)
  4. Aerophobia (Fear of flying)
  5. Cynophobia (Fear of dogs)
  6. Astraphobia (Fear of thunder and lightning)
  7. Trypanophobia (Fear of injections)
  8. Social Phobia (Social anxiety disorder)
  9. Agoraphobia (Fear of a situation where escape may be difficult)
  10. Mysophobia (Fear of germs)
  11. Claustrophobia (Fear of small spaces)
  12. Glossophobia (Fear of public speaking)

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