Fear Is Nothing to Be Feared

A phenomenon known as ‘fear of fear’ is at the core of most anxiety disorders

Posted Dec 26, 2017

In his first inaugural address on March of 1933, with the nation staring into the abyss of the Great Depression, FDR famously said: “Let me assert my firm belief that the only thing we have to fear is fear itself—nameless, unreasoning, unjustified terror which paralyzes needed efforts to convert retreat into advance.” 

FDR’s observation that a state of terror has the capacity to hinder constructive action was surely correct. Yet what is the proper response to such a state? FDR’s prescription, that ‘fear itself’ should be feared, is problematic.

First, as the late existentialist psychologist Rollo May had pointed out, the construct of ‘fear itself’ is logically suspect, since fear does not exist as a feeling onto itself, untethered to a feared object in the world. May proposed that, for precision and clarity’s sake, we should substitute ‘anxiety’ for ‘fear itself.’  For May, however, ‘anxiety’ held quite a specific meaning, having to do with one’s subjective experience of inner conflict emerging from the awareness of death. May saw covert signs of anxiety in everything from America’s preoccupation with compulsive work to its rabid conformity, forced gregariousness, the perpetual, purposeless leisure activity and the desperate cultural clawing at all manner of diversion. (What most people call ‘anxiety’ May thought was better termed ‘stress,’ our physical and psychological reaction to the demands of living).

Semantics aside, FDR’s famous phrase was not an original thought. Variants of the ‘fear of fear’ coinage, a sentiment alluding to the dangers of fear, have reportedly been bandied about quite frequently in early twentieth century America. Further back, the sentence, “Nothing is so much to be feared as fear,” appears in Henry David Thoreau’s journals, circa 1851.

Earlier still, the coinage may have originated with the Roman Stoic philosopher Seneca, who wrote: “Remember, however, before all else, to strip things of all that disturbs and confuses, and to see what each is at bottom; you will then comprehend that they contain nothing fearful except the actual fear.”

FDR’s and Seneca’s sentiments seem quite similar on the surface. A closer inspection, however, reveals that while FDR’s words warn that we should fear our potent terror feelings, Seneca implies that those feelings should not be feared but rather examined. Once carefully inspected and seen through, they lose much of their destructive power.

The old Stoic, it turns out, was the one who had it right. Contemporary psychological science has shown quite convincingly that many anxiety problems, such as panic disorder, agoraphobia, OCD, social phobia, and GAD, tend to boil down to a phenomenon psychologists call ‘fear of fear’—our inability to tolerate the short-term discomfort of being scared and our tendency to believe in the imminent arrival of the myriad calamities conjured up by fear, most of which are either unlikely to materialize or not that terrible when viewed in proper context.

The bodily sensation of fear—the autonomic nervous system arousal, the sweating, the pounding heart, dizziness, muscle tension—and the negative catastrophic thoughts that accompany the response are highly scary and unpleasant, yet our understandable desire to alleviate quickly this unpleasantness leads to many of our problems.

When we are afraid, two things tend to happen. First, we assume that we are in some danger. Often when we feel afraid we look around to find the external reason, some threat in the environment. If we can’t find it, we turn inward, telling ourselves that our fear symptoms are signs that something is wrong with us. We feel bad, so we assume that things are bad or that we are bad.

Part of the problem here is that our fear response is an ancient alarm system that evolved in an environment where mortal danger was the norm. In such an environment, a false alarm (I thought it was deadly but it turned out to be harmless) was a better evolutionary bet than a miss (I thought it was harmless but it turned out to be deadly). Yet, in our new, relatively safe environment, this ancient system tends to overreact needlessly, urgently alerting us to nonexistent danger. What used to be meaningful signal is now mostly trivial noise. Heights, for example, in the past presented mostly actual danger. Thus when your flight takes off you feel a strong fear of heights, even though the airplane is safer than your car.

Second, as fear tends to escalate quickly into high discomfort, our ‘go-to’ prediction is that this sharply rising pattern will continue indefinitely. We come to believe that unless we do something about them, our symptoms will gradually worsen to the point of becoming unendurable. Once we convince ourselves of this, we tend to then look for a quick solution. The quickest short-term solution to feeling discomfort is to escape, and later avoid, the situation in which the feelings emerged.

This response pattern makes intuitive sense, and it tends to work in the short term. Alas, it is a trap. The first problem with this response pattern is that those who react to escalating fear by escaping or avoiding the situation never give themselves a chance to experience and learn firsthand how fear actually behaves. Thus, they continue to base their behavior on incorrect assumptions. In actuality, fear does not behave like most people assume it does. While it tends to emerge and escalate quickly, its progress is neither infinite nor linear. In other words, fear does not continue to rise the longer we remain in the fearful situation. It eventually levels off and then declines as habituation takes place.

The second problem is that life is long-term, and short-term solutions often become long-term problems. Drinking excessively, for example, relieves stress in the short term, yet in the long term it becomes a bigger problem than whatever stressor you’ve been drinking to avoid. Likewise, avoiding the noxious sensations of fear over time leads to avoidance becoming a bigger problem than these noxious sensations could ever be. This is because avoidance, by its nature, teaches you only how to further avoid things. If the only way you know how to deal with noxious stuff is by avoiding it, you end up avoiding life, of which noxious stuff is an inherent feature.

The upshot of all this is that most people who have anxiety problems do not actually have a problem of anxiety. Rather, their problem is that they haven’t learned how to be anxious correctly. Specifically, their mistake is that they are afraid of their own fear response and are misinformed about it, therefore making incorrect coping decisions that lead to more rather than less fear in the long run.

The solution is two-fold. First, you need to get to know your anxiety. Stop hating on it. Observe it. Approach it. Befriend it. Fear is like a crying baby, to be pacified it needs to be embraced. Educate yourself about the fear response: It is neither dangerous nor necessarily a sign of danger. It is not the enemy. It won’t continue to escalate forever. Feeling like you’re out of control does not mean you’re out of control. Our fear system has evolved to protect us. If you can feel fear, it means that your systems are working. Get to know where fear resides in your body. What it feels like. How it moves. Engage your fear experience.While avoidance begets deterioration, engagement facilitates transformation.

(Case in point: As a young teenager I was still quite afraid of the dark. Three years in the Israeli army’s special forces, where training included spending many a night walking alone through unfamiliar dark terrain, cured me of that fear. I learned how to see in the dark. I learned how to find and navigate by the northern star. I learned that objects cast shadows under a full moon. I learned that the person in the light is much more vulnerable than the one in the dark, because the latter can see the former but not vice versa. Eventually, I came to appreciate the dark).

Second, think long term rather than short-term solutions. The long-term solution is learning to manage the fear and manage yourself in the fearful territory. This will take a while. You will be uncomfortable for a while. But your skill will improve with practice and time. Remember that your fear is not ‘you’ and it does not represent realty in full. It is a part of your experience, not the totality of it, a mind event not a world event. Remember too that while you feel fear, you also have other feelings, like frustration, hope, or curiosity. You may choose to pay attention to those feelings, too. While the fear emotion provides information, it is not the only source of valuable information. You’d want to consult your courage, too, as well as your values, long-term goals, logic and reason and past experience and knowledge of the world in order to get a full and fair representation of what is actually going on. Over time you will see that, properly understood, fear is nothing to be feared. And while fear that no longer scares you will not disappear altogether, it will indeed lose the power to control your life.