Why Do We Feel Afraid?

Why do we feel afraid? Is it something innate or learned? We'll analyze this emotional reaction and explain its possible causes.
Why Do We Feel Afraid?
Laura Ruiz Mitjana

Written and verified by la psicóloga Laura Ruiz Mitjana.

Last update: 30 April, 2023

Why do we feel afraid? Is it normal? When does it become pathological? When we talk about fear, we’re referring to a universal emotion that allows for survival. Through it, we protect ourselves from what may cause us harm, even if it’s sometimes paralyzing.

Some fears are innate and instinctive and others are learned, as we’ll see throughout the article. We also find evolutionary fears, which are a component of normal development (especially during childhood). The latter are transitory and don’t interfere with daily functioning.

In this article, we’ll try to shed some light on the question of why people feel afraid, to what extent genetics play a role here, and what function it has in life. Finally, we’ll also differentiate fear from phobias.

“First you learn to be afraid and then that information is stored in the brain.”

-José Antonio Portellano-

Why do we feel afraid?

The reality is that we’re programmed to feel fear. As in other species, DNA contains the data for a fear response to potential predators and multiple stimuli.

You can be afraid of anything, although there are some fears that are more prevalent and evolutionary than others, which are fears related to danger. For example, snakes, fire, heights, sharks, etc. They’re believed to have an evolutionary (adaptive) sense, as they allowed our ancestors to survive.

According to José Antonio Portellano Pérez, clinical psychologist and professor at the Complutense University of Madrid, there would be two different types of fear: On the one hand, those that are endogenous (congenital), not learned, and are already programmed in our genes, and, on the other hand, acquired fears.

Regarding the former, they’re less frequent than the learned ones and include the fear of natural phenomena such as storms or the fear of death.

“The fear of death is the most ancient congenital fear that exists in the human species.”

-José Antonio Portellano Pérez-

Objective: Survival

A woman who's afraid of public speaking.
There are fears that are of a social nature, for example, that of speaking in public. They’re not linked to survival.

Answering the question about why we feel afraid, we find among its first explanations the human being’s desire for survival. This has to do with the evolutionary fears discussed.

In relation to this, a team of researchers from Columbia University in New York studied which were the most common phobias that existed, these being the phobia of spiders and snakes. Among their conclusions, they found the following: The fear of spiders (arachnophobia) originated hundreds of thousands of years ago, at the beginning of human evolution in Africa, a place where spiders were an imminent danger.

The same study reveals another interesting fact: Fear was so great in these early stages of human evolution that it was recorded in the DNA. So, in a way, there are fears that are genetic.

“Throughout primate history, snakes have been among their deadliest predators. Which means that the human tendency to fear them could be inherited from our ancestors.”

– Nathan H. Lens –

Differences between fears and phobias

Why do we feel afraid? Is being afraid the same thing as having a phobia? No, these are two different concepts. While being afraid is, to a certain extent, something normal, suffering from a phobia implies psychological illness. What do we mean? What differences do we find?

Fears are responses characterized by an unpleasant sensation in the face of a stimulus, caused by the perception of danger, be it real or supposed, present, future, or even past. On the other hand, a phobia is the presence of an intense fear of a specific stimulus that doesn’t have to be dangerous, to which the person responds with high levels of anxiety, discomfort, or avoidance.

That is, fear isn’t pathological because it doesn’t interfere with the life of the individual or cause deterioration or intense discomfort, while phobias do. So, while fear would have an evolutionary sense of survival, phobias do not.

Why are phobias pathological?

Unlike what happens with fear, the following characteristics come together regarding phobias:

  • The reaction is out of proportion to the danger of the situation. In fear, the reaction is usually adjusted to the danger of the stimulus.
  • It’s irrational and resistant to explanations and reasoning. Fear can be better managed, although phobias are difficult to control.
  • Feared situations are avoided. Of course, this happens in the case of fear as well, although for different reasons.
  • They’re not transitory and don’t disappear spontaneously, as is the case with fears.
  • They interfere in the life of the person. Fears don’t, or if they do, it’s not in a significant way.

The why of fear

As we’ve seen, fear is a normal reaction to dangerous situations. Although it’s true that there are people who can develop fears toward stimuli that aren’t dangerous (public speaking, interacting with other people), this occurs with those who are more apprehensive.

Therefore, insecurities and low self-esteem would also partly explain the appearance of certain fears, especially those directed at stimuli that a priori aren’t dangerous. An example of these would be fears of a social nature, which if intensified, lead to social phobia.

Learned fears

Living through a traumatic experience also increases the likelihood of developing a fear or phobia. If a dog bites us and we develop a phobia of them, for example. The possibilities are endless.

In these cases, we’re talking about learned fears. According to psychologist José Antonio Portellano, a large majority of the fears we feel are conditioned. First, we learn to have that fear, and then, the information is stored in the brain.

Where is fear learned or recorded? In the amygdala, a brain structure that constitutes the conditioning center, in which the emotional meaning of sensory signals is maintained.

Fear of flying in an airplane.
Fears represent a response to stimuli that we consider dangerous.

Can you lose fear?

The answer is yes, you can. There are various reasons that would explain how and why we lose certain fears. The evolutionary fears that are typical of childhood (fear of the dark, of being alone, of strange people) disappear on their own over time. That is, they fade within a certain age range.

There are other fears that are also lost by working on them (in therapy, exposing ourselves to the situation). Finally, at a more biological level, there’s a curious syndrome, that of Kluver-Bucy, which involves damage to temporal sections of the limbic networks and which generates a general insensitivity to fear-generating stimuli.

We all feel afraid

“It is not death that a man should fear, but he should fear never beginning to live.”

-Marcus Aurelius-

It’s practically impossible not to be afraid. All people have it to a greater or lesser extent and depending on what stimuli. Any sociocultural environment can facilitate, at some point, the feeling of fear of certain stimuli.

Being afraid isn’t pathological, but rather evolutionary. It always makes sense, but sometimes, we have to act to find out what it’s trying to tell us.

In general, the best solution to overcome it will be to face the situation that we’re trying to avoid. Fear should help us to evolve and learn, as well as to be aware of our insecurities, not to go back, or avoid living truly.

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