Fear is one of the most powerful basic emotions. It allows us to avoid those situations that are potentially dangerous by activating an adaptive response. Therefore, it is essential to keep us safe. The problem begins when fear becomes omnipresent or is generated in situations that do not really represent a physical or psychological risk. The problem begins when we fill ourselves with learned fears that prevent us from developing our potential by keeping ourselves in a comfort zone too narrow.
We are born with the ability to feel fear, but we acquire our fears
The ability to feel fear is innate. It is an evolutionary mechanism that helps us stay safe. However, our fears are learned. In fact, babies don’t show fear for the first time until 8 to 12 months of age, usually in response to new people or strange events. And not even all babies show fear of strangers.
A study conducted at Rutgers and New York Universities found that babies are more likely to view a stranger as a threat when they are not in a safe place. In contrast, when they are at home or in the arms of their mothers, they are less likely to react with fear when a stranger approaches.
That means that we have acquired our fears at some point in life. Some of those fears come from our direct experience. For example, we can fear dogs if at some point a dog bit us.
However, we can also develop conditioned fears. This type of fear develops when we observe a fear reaction in others. It is not even necessary that we see a dog biting someone, it may be enough for a person to tell us a bad experience or just show their fear of dogs.
Fears of the others, the psychological burden that does not correspond to us
Significant people or those who are a reference for us have a greater influence on the formation of our identity and, therefore, it is easier for them to “infect us” with their own fears. The behaviors of attachment figures are essential to transmit security, well-being and confidence or, on the contrary, generate anxiety and fear in children.
As children have not yet formed an image of the world, they use their parents as references to obtain information and to know how they should behave in new situations. In fact, children are true experts in non-verbal language and easily pick up on their parents’ fear reactions. If they see that their mother or father reacts with fear of dogs, they probably assume that they are dangerous animals and it is necessary to avoid them.
By not having the ability to process parental fears logically, they make them their own, as revealed by a study carried out at the University of Limburg. For this reason, it is common for children to develop the same fears as their parents, especially their mothers.
That means that even though we are adults, it is likely that much of our learned fears actually belong to our parents or attachment figures in childhood. The problem is that many of those learned fears are not limited to the fear of spiders or dogs, but are much more complex fears that limit us enormously.
We can get, for example, the fear of failure. Or the fear to get out of our comfort zone because our parents gave us the idea that the world is a hostile and dangerous place. In those cases, we let other people’s fears condition our worldview, decisions, and opportunities.
If we want to get rid of this “psychological burden”, it is convenient that we reflect on all those learned fears that hinder us or generate discomfort but that are not based on our direct experiences and have no reason for being.
How to overcome the learned fears?
The fact that the learned fears do not come from our direct experiences does not make them any less scary since they are etched with fire in our minds. A study conducted at Columbia University revealed that learned fears are part of our brain record. They depend on both the activity of the amygdala and the regions involved in social cognition. And when they are activated, we react to them in the same way that we react to fears that come from our direct experiences. In other words, our brain does not establish differences between learned fears transmitted by others and our own.
The first step for getting rid of these learned fears is to understand their origin. When we detect a limiting fear we must ask ourselves: Where did it come from? Do we know someone close to us who shares that fear? Have we had any negative experiences that can explain that fear?
When we realize that they are learned fears, we can assume a psychological distance that allows us to analyze them from a more detached perspective. That does not mean that they will disappear magically, but we can begin to question their validity and realize how they limit our lives. At this point we can ask ourselves: What direct evidence supports this fear? To what extent is it adaptive? How is it limiting my life? What would I like to do if I did not feel that fear?
LoBue, V. & Adolph, K. E. (2019) Fear in infancy: Lessons from snakes, spiders, heights, and strangers. Developmental Psychology; 55: 1889-1907.
Ochsner, K. (2007) Learning to fear what others have feared before. Soc Cogn Affect Neurosci Mar; 2(1): 1–2.
Olsson, A. et. Al. (2007) Learning fears by observing others: the neural systems of social fear transmission. Soc Cogn Affect Neurosci; 2(1): 3–11.
Muris, P. et. Al. (1996) The role of parental fearfulness and modeling in children’s fear. Behaviour research and therapy; 34(3): 265-268.