Updated: May 28
Written by Claire Huder
FB: Claire Huder
Everyone experiences fear. Fear of something specific and tangible, such as clowns or the dark. Fear of something more vague and indiscernible, such as a feeling or thought. Whether it may seem simple or complicated, fear is something from which we all suffer, from the meek to the bold.
But what is fear exactly? “Some argue that ‘fear’ is a psychological construct rather than discoverable through scientific investigation.” (1) When we ask: what is the definition of fear, we are faced with a variety of different interpretations:
Merriam-Webster defines it as “an unpleasant often strong emotion caused by anticipation or awareness of danger.” (5)
Collins Dictionary defines it as “the unpleasant feeling you have when you think that you are in danger.” (3)
In his article, “The Biology of Fear”, featured in Current Biology, Professor Ralph Adolphs defines it functionally as “a central state evoked by threatening stimuli”, which he states as possibly criticized as “seemingly circular”. He follows this interpretation with the following: “What is fear? The state evoked by threat. What is threat? That which causes fear. The reason that our definition of fear is not circular is that it is anchored not only in stimuli, but in behaviors.” (1)
What all of these definitions share is the notion that fear is what follows the act of feeling vulnerable. When we are confronted with anything that can be construed as dangerous, painful, or even simply unknown and therefore unable to be classified as safe or innocent, the obvious reaction is to feel afraid or anxious or threatened. Sometimes fear seems so natural that we give in without a fight. But must we give in, or can we fight it? How do we overcome this basic instinct?
We overcome fear by facing it, by proving to ourselves that we are strong enough to conquer
it, and that is no easy task. The basis of our fear is our vulnerability, so how do we make ourselves invulnerable? If we avoid our fear, it prevents us from moving forward and has the opposite effect that we desire—we end up feeling increasingly anxious. However, we do not have to face our fears alone; there are a variety of support systems we can utilize: friends, family, professors/teachers, and counselors/therapists including those with specialties in this particular subject.
For instance, I have coulrophobia, otherwise known as “an excessive, persistent, and irrational fear of clowns.” (11) Ever since I saw the movie It by well-known horror author Stephen King when I was around eleven years old, I have been absolutely terrified of their pasty white faces, their overbearing and colorful makeup, and their baggy costumes.
For a time, this fear branched out into a fear of certain situations: circuses, haunted houses, and even the shower/bathtub and storm drains. My heart rate and breathing would increase exponentially every time I had to close my eyes to lather and rinse in the shower or bath, and I would go out of my way to avoid any storm drains along the road when I walked down the street. There is even a photo of myself around age six in clown makeup at a circus, and I cannot even look at it—it scares me.
In no way have I overcome my fear; rather, I have grown with it. Whilst in the company of those I can trust—those who will not take advantage of my fear and use it against me, which unfortunately has happened multiple times in the past and reduced me to tears and screams—I now face my fear: I watch horror movies featuring clowns and I attend haunted houses. I am determined not to ignore, but rather to face my fear of clowns in order to enjoy certain activities and entertainment genres.
For example, I am a very big horror fan. I enjoy the adrenaline rush of watching horror movies and even entering haunted house attractions. As previously stated, I mostly avoid haunted houses because of the—especially recent—focus on killer clowns. My goal is to be able to enter these attractions and complete them without giving in completely to my so-called “irrational fear of clowns” (6) and ultimately have a panic attack. My goal also is to be able to enjoy horror movies—and even other movie genres that may feature such characters. Whilst in the company of my support system, I face my fear by watching such movies and shows as the new—and old—Stephen King’s It, Joker, and American Horror Story. I must admit, even typing these titles and reading over them has sent a shiver down my spine. But, ultimately, my goal is simply to conquer my fear.
Some fears, however, cannot be dealt with simply by confronting them. Though, as previously mentioned, I am afraid of clowns, this is not, in fact, my greatest fear.
My greatest fear lies in something more primal or instinctive: the fear of being caged, of being imprisoned, of being trapped with a complete absence of freedom, of isolation.
As human beings, we innately value our freedom and the ability to have at least some amount of control over our lives, as well as being able to share our lives with others. It is no accident that the punishment for crimes is incarceration—“the state of being imprisoned or confined” (9)—because it is the lack of this valuable and meaningful aspect of our lives and removes us from the company of those we cherish.
So, how may I overcome this fear? This fear is something that I cannot simply face with the hope that I will eventually no longer be afraid of it. This fear lies more in my mindset rather than being caused by a specific experience, such as the development of my coulrophobia. Thus I must change the way in which I think of this fear. As with other, deeper fears such as this, I believe that the key to facing it is through finding inner peace and positivity. Mentioned in the Mental Health Foundation’s article “How to overcome fear and anxiety”, there are multiple ways to accomplish this:
We can try to learn more about ourselves: we can write down our thoughts and concerns in a journal and therefore process through them. We can even “carry with [us] a list of things that help at times when [we] are likely to become frightened or anxious. This can be an effective way of addressing the underlying beliefs that are behind [our] anxiety.” (4)
We can exercise: “Exercise requires some concentration, and this can take your mind off your fear and anxiety.” (2)
We can learn relaxation techniques, such as meditation or yoga.
We can eat healthily: “Resulting dips in [our] blood sugar can give [us] anxious feelings. Try to avoid drinking too much tea and coffee, as caffeine can increase anxiety levels.” (8)
We can avoid alcohol or drink in moderation: “the after-effects of alcohol can make [us] feel even more afraid or anxious.” (7)
We can explore our faith or spirituality: “this can give [us] a way of feeling connected to something bigger than [ourselves]. Faith can provide a way of coping with everyday stress, and…can connect [us] with a valuable support network.” (7)
With these tools and more, we all will discover that fear is not something to be afraid of. On the contrary, fear is a useful device when harnessed correctly. Fear can protect us and keep us safe. We must always remember that with fear comes courage. We just have to use it wisely and not give in to the point in which it becomes detrimental to our health, mental and physical.
(1) Adolphs, Ralph. “The Biology of Fear.” Current Biology, vol. 23, no. 2, 21 Jan. 2013, doi:10.1016/j.cub.2012.11.055.
(2) Anxiety UK. “Physical Exercise & Anxiety.” Available at: https://www.anxietyuk.org.uk/get-help/anxiety-information/physical-exercise-anxiety/
(3) Breslin, Gerry, et al. “Fear.” Collins Dictionary, 2020, www.collinsdictionary.com/us/dictionary/english/fear.
(4) De Oliveria, I.R., Powell, V.B., Wenzel, A., Caldas, M., Seixas, C., Almeida, C., Bonfim, T., Grangeon, M.C., Castro, M., Galvao, A., de Oliveria Moraes, R. & Sudak, D. (2011). Efficacy of the trial-based thought record, a new cognitive therapy strategy designed to change core beliefs, in social phobia. Journal of Clinical Pharmacy and Therapeutics. doi:10.1111/j.1365-2710.2011.01299.x.
(5) “Fear.” Merriam-Webster, 2020, www.merriam-webster.com/dictionary/fear.
(6) Halsey, William Darrach, and Christopher G. Morris. “Coulrophobia.” Macmillan Dictionary, 2009, www.macmillandictionary.com/us/dictionary/american/coulrophobia.
(7) “How to Overcome Fear and Anxiety.” Mental Health Foundation, 25 Jan. 2018, www.mentalhealth.org.uk/publications/overcome-fear-anxiety.
(8) Mind (2010). “The Mind Guide to food and mood.” Available at: https://www.mind.org.uk/media/7498/mind-guide-to-food-and-mood-2010.pdf [Accessed on 09/11/15].
(9) US Legal, Inc. “Incarceration Law and Legal Definition.” Incarceration Law and Legal Definition | USLegal, Inc., 1997, definitions.uslegal.com/i/incarceration/.
(10) Vale, David, et al. “Fear.” Cambridge Dictionary, 2020, dictionary.cambridge.org/us/dictionary/english/fear.
(11) VandenBos, Gary R., and American Psychological Association. “Coulrophobia.” American Psychological Association, 2020, dictionary.apa.org/coulrophobia.