Fear, a powerful and primitive human emotion, essentially shapes all that humans do. Whether to skydive off an airplane or pick up a tarantula with bare hands, fear motivates action, giving a new sense of concentration, avoidance or preparation.
Robert Chavez, a psychology professor at the University of Oregon, said the environment affects fears in a number of different ways, depending on the individual and the source of fear.
“Many people living in places where there [are] high crime rates, war, violence or other fear inducing states, will often ‘desensitize,’ or what psychologists call habituate to these environments, in order to continuing functioning in their daily lives,” Chavez said. “Others may do the opposite and become even more sensitive to these cues in their environment; psychologists call this sensitization.”
There are many ways a person’s own experience can lead him or her to associate different things in the environment with feelings of fear, Chavez said. One common misunderstanding of emotions is that humans view them as independent from other psychological processes when, in fact, emotions are often a part of the processes.
“Fear and learning is a nice example of this. Many researchers believe fear itself is indeed a learning mechanism that has been used to help people survive,” Chavez said. “For example, if you see a long, tan colored object on a dirt trail in front of you, it is safer to automatically associate this with ‘snake’ even if it turns out to just be just a stick because snakes are more likely to harm you than sticks.”
An individual’s biggest fear can very well affect daily life, even if it is not an animate object like a snake. Junior Audrey Snyder fears making a mistake, regardless of how small, in her social, educational or familial spheres. Snyder credits this fear to the idea that every decision she makes can magnify and expand to affect the future.
“Every choice has the potential to make or break, whether or not to study an extra hour, commit to an activity or who you associate yourself with, and reverberates into your future career, relationships, success and happiness,” Snyder said. “Having the wrong mentality, in the wrong place, at the wrong time could determine so much of your life after that moment that it hangs over my head and has impacted almost my entire high school experience.”
The World Bank, an international financial institution.This fear of failure, however, is more common than one might perceive. In the United States alone, the fear of failure rate for 18 to 64 years old is 33.36 percent, according to
For senior Lucy Beattie, the fear of failure, whether it is at school or in her personal life, requires her to occasionally put on an ‘I don’t care’ mask to try and save herself from any pain.
“Fear definitely used to keep me from doing things, but in the past two years, I’ve come to really accept myself for who I am,” Beattie said. “[This] allows me to open up and be more authentic with people.”
Beattie noted it can be easier to hide rather than to face a fear head on, even if it is not healthy. She said fears are always in the back of her mind, causing her to think about them often, especially when under stress.
With worry and fear can come the constant thinking Beattie described. In some cases, a tendency to over analyze can be both advantageous and disadvantageous. For Snyder, her consciousness has been beneficial to her whenever a person or an experience in her life is more intricate than it appears on the surface. Snyder’s freshman year, one of her best friends went through a breakup. All alone in a new environment, the individual isolated himself or herself and became precautiously distant, Snyder said.
“I didn’t see them as much as before, but when I did I would occasionally notice small but scary, sabotaging choices they had made, dark comments or morbid jokes,” Snyder said. “At first I over thought about whether or not our distance and the change in them was my fault, or maybe just because of the new school. After scrutinizing both of those options out of possibility, I realized they were just in a bad place because of circumstance, and that they exhibited some of the same signs for depression.”
After Snyder told the situation to someone she believed could help, she realized just how severely depression and suicidal thoughts had been present in her friend. The individual is in a better place now, and Snyder’s attentiveness, in this case, played an important role in making a positive difference.
“Fear definitely used to keep me from doing things, but in the past two years, I’ve come to really accept myself for who I am. [This] allows me to open up and be more authentic with people.”
Snyder, however, in other scenarios, points this tendency to overthink as a flaw whenever she finds meaning behind words or actions where there actually is none. Each detail entering her head eventually has the power to drive a wedge between friendships, making Snyder wonder if an outcome could be different if thoughts had not crept in through the cracks of her confidence. Snyder’s fear is not just an object in the road she can avoid. She still notices her tendency to approach situations precautiously.
“To avoid preventing any prospects that might come my way, I hesitate and overthink situations way more than I would have otherwise,” Snyder said. “I’m much more careful in all aspects of my life, and while I could have ruined my life by now if I wanted to, it’s hard not to wonder what you’ve missed out on, or what would be different if your priorities were, too.”
Not only is it normal for individuals to avoid things they fear, but Chavez said it is also very adaptive. He mentioned there are good reasons to be somewhat fearful of situations where an individual will have to encounter fears. It is a different issue, however, when a fear goes from being adaptive and healthy to maladaptive and debilitating.
“Many clinical psychologists will tell you that having a fear of something is not a bad thing in and of itself,” Chavez said. “However, when it starts to get in the way of your ability to function in the real world or get along with others, then you may have a problem that is worth seeking help.”
How does fear influence your decision making? Let us know in the comments below.