A guide to everyday psychology

Short Reads

Understanding fear and Anxiety

[See also: “How we learn things”; “Classical Conditioning”; “How do we acquire superstitions, phobias and OCDs?”]

Throughout this website – and in every aspect of human life – we often come across fear and anxiety. It is no exaggeration to say that that fear and anxiety define the human experience.

Here I want to put them in psychological context, and outline what they are and how they arise.

The first thing to understand is that fears and anxieties are a universal part of everyday life. Every living creature capable of having fear and anxiety has them. This is because fear of (and anxiety about) dangerous things is a fantastic asset in helping us to survive.

A second important thing to note is the intimate relationship between fear, anxiety and pain. Fear and anxiety hurt. They motivate animals (including humans) to escape from and avoid things that cause fear and anxiety.

And third, it is important to realise that fears and anxieties are normal mental experiences, not mental disorders!

The survival benefits of fear and anxiety are not difficult to see. A spider that runs away from you stands a much better chance of surviving than the spider who stops to fight you. Similarly, the impala that runs away from a cheetah stands a better chance of surviving than the impala who turns round to fight. Even honey badgers, renowned for their willingness to stand and fight, run away from predators if they get the chance.

In evolutionary terms, fear and anxiety improve our chances of survival. Bravery is something animals only waste on something very worthwhile – the opportunity to eat, drink or mate, for example. To be cautious, fearful and anxious is entirely normal.

What’s the difference between fear and anxiety?

Not very much, in practice… And they overlap.

Crudely, if you’re in an out-of-control airliner heading vertically towards the earth and certain that you’re about to die, that’s fear. If you’re at home the day before a flight and fretting about being killed in an air crash tomorrow, that’s anxiety. Conversely, if you’re heading vertically for the earth and fretting that people might find porn on your laptop, post-mortem, that’s (probably) anxiety.

Psychiatrists and psychotherapists concern themselves mostly with anxiety – because it can attach itself to so many harmless things (like solitary magpies and mice and open spaces). The specifics of superstitions, phobias and ‘dreads’ are discussed in other articles.

How do we acquire fears and anxieties?

Humans learn nearly all their targets for fear and anxiety. With the exception of a startle reflex to sudden noises, an innate fear of ‘strangeness’ and ‘largeness’ (the latter probably gives us our common fear of heights), no specific fears appear to be inherited (nope, not even snakes or spiders).

The situation is different with non-human animals. Many animals begin their lives with fears and anxieties pre-installed, to a greater or lesser extent. These instinctive responses (including fears) are seen in animals that will have no opportunity to learn them from their parents or experience. When a salmon hatches, it can learn nothing from its parents because they all died the year before.

Instinctive responses often appear where even one failure to respond correctly could be fatal or lose an opportunity to mate. Consider the poor spider… It will almost always run/hide away once it senses you approaching it. In a spider’s instinctive blueprint of dangerous things, objects that are large + approaching = scary. It can’t eat you or mate with you – so why hang around to see if you might eat it?

You, on the other hand, fear spiders and snakes because, in most western cultures, we learn or are taught to fear them. This isn’t universal across human cultures though. In some cultures people hunt catch spiders and snakes to eat them!

By what mechanisms do we learn our fears and anxieties?

We learn fears and anxieties through ‘classical’ conditioning, ‘operant’ conditioning and through social learning. These are quite straightforward and there is a separate article about the mechanisms of learning.

When do fears and anxieties become phobias – and maybe cause OCD?

It is important to realise that phobias and OCDs are no different from other fears and anxieties. We learn all of them. And their status as a ‘disorder’ is always socially defined. There is no fixed point at which a fear of (say) spiders suddenly becomes a phobia. And we can’t use the test of ‘irrational’ either. This too is often socially defined.  There is a separate article about superstitions, phobias and compulsive behaviours.

Even people whose fears and anxieties are so extreme that they disable normal life, learn them through exactly the same mechanisms as any other fears. We might be tempted to label their experiences as a ‘mental disorder’ because their experience is so extreme. But this adds nothing useful to our understanding.


  • Fear and anxiety is universal, because it brings important survival benefits.
  • Fear and anxiety are painful: they motivate escape and avoidance.
  • In humans, the objects of our fears are nearly all learned.
  • We learn our phobias, dreads, superstitions and anxieties through exactly the same mechanisms as ‘normal’ fears and anxieties.

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