There Are 3 Different Kinds Of Fear — Here's How To Handle Each One

Photo by Micky Wiswedel

All of us have experienced fear at some point in our lives. From an evolutionary standpoint, fear is a built-in mechanism, a highly effective warning system that helps to keep us out of danger and from physical harm. Put simply, the original purpose of fear was to help keep us alive.

Since most of us are no longer living in the middle of a vast wilderness, the fear responses that may have helped keep us safe from bears and lions don't do us much good in modern life. We no longer experience the same mortal threat that our long-lost ancestors did. Our physical lives are rarely in danger, so the fears we grapple with today are largely conditioned.

While healthy fear is still effectively alerting us to danger, there are two other types of fear that have evolved over time: real fear and illogical fear. All three types of fear can help us grow if we become aware of them, but more often than not, they rob us of the joy we could be experiencing day-to-day.

Let's take a look at these three types of fear, how each one affects your life, and how to work with them.

Healthy fear

Healthy fear helps us discern safe situations from dangerous ones. It is a gift given to each and every one of us and typically manifests as a physical, instinctual response. This is the type of fear we need for our survival and protection, and it is characterized by a physical response: a rush of adrenaline, an elevated heart rate, a burst of energy. It is the fear that kicks in when you are standing too close to the edge of a cliff or placing your hand near an open flame.

Healthy fear keeps us safe, and we should respect that instinct—but we don't always listen to it. A team of social psychologists conducted an experiment wherein they asked participants to sit in a room and fill out a questionnaire. A few minutes into this experiment, the team would begin to leak smoke into the room through a vent. They found that, if alone, the participant would get up and alert someone to the smoke. But when participants were in a room together? The time it took for them to say something was exponentially longer. Their fear of embarrassing themselves by overreacting was stronger than their gut instinct—even when the room filled with so much smoke that they could barely see.

How to handle healthy fear.

Listen to your intuition. In the face of your intuition telling you something is off, don't try to reason with yourself. Just listen to what your instincts are trying to tell you and take steps to ensure your safety. If you feel you should avoid a certain road, or if the person standing in the elevator you are about to enter makes you feel uncomfortable, honor your intuition.

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Real fear

While real fear is very much based in reality, it is not the same as healthy fear in the sense that it's not based on physical danger. Some examples would be the fear of losing the people we love most, never achieving our dreams and aspirations, and even the fear of our own death. This fear exists in the truth that life is a terminal condition, and it's based on something that is irrefutably real: Everything we do and everything we are has an expiration date. These manifestations of real fear may be existential, but they are just as valid because they are associated with real events like death, change, and pain.

This type of fear may be a fact of life, but it can also consume us to the point that we stop fully living our lives.

How to handle real fear.

Real fears can be empowering. For instance, if you fear losing people you love, put your energy toward being completely engaged when spending time with them and fully appreciate that they are here now. If you fear the process of aging, perhaps this energy could be spent exercising and making dietary changes to ensure that the golden years are more healthful. Real fear can be used as a powerful motivation for using our thoughts and spending our time wisely.

Illogical fear

This is the big one. Illogical fear resides on the opposite end of the spectrum from healthy fear. It feels the same, but it is typically triggered as a result of something hypothetical or altogether nonexistent.

Whether big or small, this fear manifests for all of us in different ways. Spiders. Heights. Cockroaches. Flying. Is there a fear in your life that falls into this category? Perhaps it's driving on freeways? Claustrophobia? Public speaking? Imagine, for a moment, what your life would be like if this fear was eliminated. The feeling is almost always one of liberation and peace.

For me, illogical fear manifested as a fear of elevators. This fear had been with me since I was 3 or 4. I would panic any time I was in an elevator. Prior to a move from Los Angeles to New York, my illogical fear began to set in again in a very real way. As you can imagine, it is almost impossible to navigate Manhattan without getting into an elevator fairly regularly. I love to exercise, but I don't love traversing 20 flights of stairs on a daily basis, which I have admittedly done on more than one occasion because my illogical fear had such a hold on me. However, my desire to move to New York was so great that I decided this fear just couldn't tag along.

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How to handle illogical fear.

Using my illogical fear experience, I'll take you through the steps of eradicating this type of fear from your daily life:

1. Plan for the morning.

It has been scientifically proven that our willpower is strongest in the earlier part of the day. We experience optimum levels of endurance and stamina then, so practically speaking, do the thing that scares you first thing in the morning.

2. Challenge your fear-based thoughts.

Fear-based thoughts fall into one of three categories:

  • Prophesying: "I'm going to get on this elevator and have a full-blown panic attack."
  • Catastrophizing: "The elevator cables are going to break, and I'm going to crash to my death!"
  • Overgeneralizing: "I heard about an elevator getting stuck one time, so I'm never riding them ever again."

Any time one of these thoughts crops up, we can recognize it's our illogical fear at work, and we can challenge these thoughts with the following questions:

  • What around me contradicts this thought? (e.g., "The elevator seems new and is running smoothly.")
  • What action could I take if this were to occur? (e.g., "I could always call for assistance using the elevator's own alarm, and there is no indication that my cellphone won't work.")
  • Is this thought fear-based? (e.g., "Yes, I can clearly see that I am catastrophizing. There is no evidence that what I fear will come true and all evidence is to the contrary.")

Ask these questions the next time you find yourself at the behest of fearful thoughts.

3. Exposure.

Using the above steps, make a plan to face your fear. Tackle a manageable amount each day and build on it. Using the elevator fear, you could plan to ride up a single floor in newer buildings every day until that becomes simple, then progress to two or three floors at a time. Before you know it, you'll be riding elevators with ease. No matter what your illogical fear is, it is entirely possible to eradicate it with patience and commitment.

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Take a moment to reflect on how fear has shown up in your life.

Really pay attention to your emotions, as this is key to developing that self-awareness that will allow you to understand what's at the root of your fear. Are your fears mostly healthy, real, or illogical? Do you know when your fear started? A deep understanding of your fears, with the tools and consciousness, will help you eliminate them. You may also need the assistance of a mental health professional, and that's totally OK, too. Reach out for help if you need it.

Remember: Fear doesn't serve you, it doesn't help most situations, and it robs you of opportunities. Many people are living in a self-made prison of their own fears. If you want to be free from this prison, if you want you to be free from fear, know that you can be.

Do you suffer from restlessness, stress, lack of concentration, or panic attacks? Click here to learn about our first-ever Answer To Anxiety Masterclass, where you'll learn from world-class doctors & experts to manage your anxiety for good.

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