We all experience the fear of the unknown. Whether we like to admit it or not, we are animals of habit. We tend to think that “Better known evil than good yet to know.” It is true that we also enjoy the novelty. But in fair measure and only up to a certain point. When we feel that control is slipping away from us and uncertainty begins to creep in, we begin to feel uncomfortable. And that discomfort can quickly degenerate into paralyzing fear.
The origin of the fear of the unknown
Fear is one of the most useful basic emotions that we can experience. It warns us of a potential danger and tells us to be vigilant to get to safety if necessary. Fear of the unknown, in particular, is an atavistic fear that springs from our reluctance to be uncertain. In fact, the origin of this fear is evolutionary. Our ancestors were exposed to a great number of dangers every day, especially when they went into unknown areas where the risks could multiply.
When we do not know a person or we find ourselves in a new situation, that fear response is activated again to help us be more attentive to the small details that may indicate a danger. We do not know what is going to happen because we lack the benchmarks or the information necessary to draw conclusions, so we need to be vigilant.
In fact, our brain is particularly predisposed to fear the unknown. A study carried out at the California Technological University found that when we face situations that involve a high degree of uncertainty, are activated two regions of the brain, the amygdala and the orbitofrontal cortex.
The amygdala is the area in charge of detecting dangers and sending the alarm signal, while the orbitrofrontal cortex processes this message from a cognitive point of view. The funny thing is that when we fear the unknown we become more conservative. We are more reluctant to make mistakes and the inhibitory behavior system is activated, which means that we have a tendency to freeze.
However, while uncertainty increases, our behavior becomes more erratic and we can make more irrational decisions. The situation simply overwhelms our coping resources and we lose control.
What we lose through fear
The fear of the unknown is an adaptive reaction. However, we do not live in caves like our ancestors, and in today’s environment that fear can be more of an obstacle than an adaptive response. In fact, a study conducted at the University of Illinois found that people who are more sensitive to uncertain threats are also more vulnerable to developing anxiety and suffering from panic attacks.
When we are overly sensitive to uncertainty and the unknown, we can spend much of our lives anxious and worried that something bad might happen. Living in that state is not living, it is limiting ourselves to surviving. We reject new experiences and miss opportunities just because they contain the germ of the unknown. That means we just languish in the known while wasting our potentialities.
In the long run, fear of the unknown can even make us rigid. Fearing what we do not know prevents us from opening ourselves to new ideas and ways of doing things, which leads to intellectual stagnation. We begin to reject the new, seeking refuge in the old because it is the only thing that is safe and comfortable for us. At that precise moment we stop growing.
How to overcome the fear of the unknown?
1. Accept the fear of the unknown
Nelson Mandela said that “It is not brave who is not afraid but who knows how to conquer it.” Everyone, without exception, feels fear. Fear is part of life and has an adaptive function. We just have to make sure that it doesn’t guide our decisions and doesn’t become a limit.
Therefore, if we fear new situations and those that contain a high level of uncertainty, the first step to overcome the fear of the unknown is to accept it. Fooling ourselves into thinking that we are not afraid, making excuses and resorting to mechanisms such as rationalization will only serve to continue feeding that fear.
2. Find its origin
If we experience a particularly intense suspicion for new circumstances or strangers, it is worth digging into the cause of that fear of the unknown. Is it due to some bad experience from our past? Maybe it’s a learned fear that our parents passed on to us?
It’s about understanding that past experiences don’t have to determine our present or future. The past represents another “self”. Now we are another person, with more experience and coping resources, which gives us the possibility to better manage uncertain situations.
3. Question the predictions
The fear of the unknown tends to leverage our negativity bias. Fears grow in our minds causing us to imagine the worst possible scenarios. It’s important to stop that negative inner dialogue by resorting to logic. What evidence do I have to support my fear? What proof do I have that something negative will happen? What’s the worst that can happen?
Marcus Aurelius, a Stoic philosopher, said: “Many of the anxieties that plague us are superfluous: being only creatures of our imagination, we can get rid of them and expand to a wider region, letting our thinking encompass the entire universe.” Therefore, many times we should not pay as much attention to our thinking or we can fall into the trap of cognitive fusion.
4. Learn to navigate uncertainty
The fear of the unknown is closely linked to the feeling of loss of control. We get scared because we cannot foresee the results and we lose control of the situation. However, we must assume that life always involves a certain degree of uncertainty. The more comfortable we are with uncertainty, the more fear of the unknown will be reduced.
To learn to navigate in uncertainty, you have to practice. A good exercise is to get out of your comfort zone often. It is about trying new experiences to overcome the fear of the unknown. Dare to try things that make us feel relatively uncomfortable just because we don’t know or fully control them. Thus we overcome our resistance to change and we get used to dealing with unknown scenarios.
5. Take fear as an opportunity for growth
Fear is not our enemy. The more we try to hide it or fight it, the bigger and more powerful it will become. Deep down, we do not have to fight the fear of the unknown, the “fight” is with ourselves, with our vision of things and our way of facing them.
Fear, whatever it is, is an opportunity to grow. It is a teacher who challenges us to dare to do those things that can help us expand our limits. Only when we do what we fear can we free ourselves from its influence.
Gorka, S. M. et. Al. (2016) Startle Potentiation to Uncertain Threat as a Psychophysiological Indicator of Fear-Based Psychopathology: An Examination Across Multiple Internalizing Disorders. Journal of Abnormal Psychology; 126(1), 8–18.
Carleton, R. N. (2016) Fear of the unknown: One fear to rule them all? Journal of Anxiety Disorders; 41: 5-21.
Hsu, M. et. Al. (2005) Neural Systems Responding to Degrees of Uncertainty in Human Decision Making. Science; 310(5754): 1680-1683.