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How you learn to be afraid

Nobody is born with fear; it’s something we learn - either from direct experience or from seeing or hearing about someone else going through a particular experience.

An example of direct experience might be a young child reaching out and touching a hot plate that has just been removed from the oven. Their brain allows them to feel the pain and they withdraw their hand quickly; after that they know to be cautious when touching their dinner plate! This is the kind of natural caution that it is beneficial for us all to have.

Another way that a fear can come about is as a result of a ‘conditioned response’ - in other words we begin to associate a particular event with a particular feeling.

So - maybe you have to give a presentation at work and you stumble over your words. Your thoughts tell you, “I messed up! I’m useless at this!” and you perhaps begin to feel embarrassed or stupid. And because your mind wants to protect you from feeling that way again, it reminds you by giving you the symptoms of fear and anxiety every single time you have to present or speak in public.

But there’s absolutely no use for this kind of fear. It’s no threat to our existence. We can be absolutely fine without it (and probably learn to give a kick-ass presentation too, because everything gets better with practise, right?)

Learning a fear can be indirect, too. If a child witnesses their mother being terrified at the sight a spider, they may learn the same response and carry it with them through life. Hearing about a plane crash on the news can be enough to make someone fear flying, despite all the statistics pointing to it being one of the safest ways to travel.

What’s scary to one person is not necessarily scary to another. The difference lies in their thinking about that thing. This is why it’s possible to develop a fear of literally anything. You might think a phobia of cotton wool or feathers is ridiculous, but to another person, there is a thought process (whether conscious or unconscious) that connects those things to a specific memory or experience and recognises them as a threat.

In our modern world many of our fears relate to social situations, too - what other people will think of us and how we might be judged. Just like the fight or flight response, this is primitive in origin, as once upon a time being cast out from the tribe would have resulted in almost certain death. So it feels vital that we fit in and have the approval of those around us. Worrying about what others think of us is extremely common, and is at the very heart of social anxiety.

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