What Is Fear?
 David San Filippo, ABD, LMHC
August 1994

The terms threat, fear, and anxiety are often used synonymously in the English language.  For the purpose of this paper I will use the term fear to relate to the collective human experience of sensing a threat, fear, and or anxiety.  However, in order to properly introduce the human responses of threat, fear, and anxiety, I provide the definitions that follow.  A threat can be defined as  a perception of imminent danger, harm, evil, etc. that is to occur in the future.  Individuals can respond to a threat in a number of ways such as with fear or anxiety.  Fear is a general term for the anxiety and agitation felt at the presence of danger.  According to Rachman (1990), "fear describes feelings of apprehension about tangible and predominately realistic dangers" (p. 3).  Anxiety defines an array of responses an individual may have to a threat or fear.  Rachman (1990) contends "anxiety refers to feelings of apprehension that are difficult to relate to tangible sources of stimulation" (p. 3).


Fear is difficult to describe in scientific terms due to the subjective nature of the experience of fear.  Dependent upon the experiencer's past encounter with threatening, fearful, and or anxious situations generally will determine what she/he may describe as a fearful, fearful, or anxious event.  People respond differently to threatening situations.  The type of threat that is perceived by the individual and the learned social responses to fearful situations could effect how an individual responds to a given threat.

According to Rachman, there are three main components to fear and they do not always correspond with each other.  It is therefore important, when discussing fear, to identify which component of fear is being described.  The three components of fear are described as "the subjective experience of apprehension, associated psychophysiological changes, and attempts to avoid or escape from fearful situations" (Rachman, 1990, p. 3).

An individual's ability to control a possible threatening situation will have an impact on her/his experience of fear.  According to Rachman (1990), "the ability to cope with threats varies with age, and these changes tend to be reflected in the distribution of fears" (p. 73).  In the human experience of dying and death, if the individual feels that she/he has no control over dying, death, and what happens after death then it would be expected that there might be some fear associated with the eventuality of this human experience.  However, if the individual is prepared to die, has a sense of control over her/his dying, and some insight into what may follow death then dying may not be as fearful.

Psychological research has demonstrated that fear can be acquired either through a conditioning process or by vicarious experiences.  The conditioning theories postulate that fear is a learned response "occurring to signals (conditioned stimuli) that are premonitory of (i.e., have in the past been followed by) situations of injury or pain (unconditional stimuli)" (Mowrer, 1939, p. 554).  Conditioning can cause fear, it also can be used to reduce or extinguish some fears by the use of systematic desensitization.  Fears that are acquired vicariously are believed to be developed by observing fear in others.  Bandura observed that not only could attitudes and behaviors be developed by observing others but by using the psychological technique of modeling other people's appropriate behavior, fearful attitudes and behaviors can be changed.

Additionally, there is some research offering theories that fear can also be acquired through the absorption of threatening information.  According to Rachman (1990), "fears can be generated by information that is slightly or not at all threatening but which is misinterpreted by the recipient as being threatening" (p. 192).  As an example, information regarding how painful some terminal illness are can cause fear of the process of dying.   However, the provision of positive information regarding the advantages and uses of pain sedatives, can have a positive effect on reducing an individual's fear of the process of dying.  Although these theories have not been sufficiently researched they do appear to offer a plausible explanation to the acquisition and overcoming of some fears.

Freud's psychoanalytic theories have attempted to associate the origin of fears to various developmental issues from a person's childhood.  He postulated three possible origins for the development of fear in human beings.  First, fear can be developed in an infant by the absence of a significant individual whose presence and help were important for the fulfillment of the child's needs.  Secondly, Freud posited that the loss of love or the disapproval of an important person in the child's life could facilitate the fear in the child.  Thirdly, the fear of castration, intense shame, and unhappiness associated with the Oedipal phase could be the genesis of fear both in males and females.  Finally, the individual can develop fear as a result of guilt.

To deal with a threat, fear, and or anxiety, Freudian and neo-Freudian psychoanalytic theories apply the concept of defense mechanisms, later called repression, which may be employed by an individual to guard against an internal and external stimuli that might invoke fear and anxiety (Freud, 1946).  This type of defenses could be expected to be used when there is a psychologically unacceptable situation that the individual may be confront.  Based upon psychoanalytic theory, the defense mechanism, of denial or illusion may be employed to overcome the threat, fear, or anxiety.  In denial, an individual when faced with a threatening situation will conjure up ways to avoid the issue by denying its existence or possibility.  Illusion, on the other hand, is the creation of something that guards the individual from confronting an unacceptable situation by creating, in most cases, an acceptable concept.  As an example, when dealing with the fear of dying and death, the use of illusions or repressions are used by some people to create and maintain a belief in immortality or by repressing the consciousness of their mortality and eventual death.  Congruent with this thinking, Freud considered religion to be an illusion created partially to overcome human fears.

Psychoanalytic theories associated with fear generally has not provided an acceptable general theory of fear in modern thinking.

The psychoanalytic theory of fear is stagnant.  There is no sign here of new discoveries, refinements of methodology, improved treatment, or growth.  Instead of intellectual bustle there is lethargy, and the theory has been passed by (Rachman, 1990, p. 205).

In summary, fear describes the general feeling of uneasiness and discomfort associated with to a threat of a an impending occurrence.  Anxiety is the associated psychophysiological response to fear.  These fears can be learned through conditioning or vicarious observation of responses to threats, and possibly by the absorption of threatening information.  There are three components to describe fear: the subjective nature of fear; the psychophysiological response to fear; and the methods some people use to avoid or escape the fears of dying, death, and the unknown of after death.

Freud, S.  (1946).  The ego and the mechanism of defense.  New York: International University Press.

Mowrer, O. H.  (1939).  Stimulus response theory of anxiety.  Psychological Review, 46, 553-565.

Rachman, S. J.  (1990).  Fear and courage - Second edition.  New York: W. H. Freeman and Company.