Distinguishing Types of Fear

by Adrian W. Hall, MFT, ATR

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Why do we even care about different kinds of fear?  Well, being human, we all experience fear.  Some of it is helpful and appropriate.  Some of it is unhelpful and insidious.  The way I see it, being able to discover unhelpful fears gives us the power of choice.  We can choose to allow that fear to be present and be impacted by it (no judgment here, fear can be daunting and can seem insurmountable).  At least by knowing about it, you can try to work around it and not be surprised every time it is controlling you.    Or, once we know it is there, we can choose to work on it and resolve it, giving us the opportunity to live with more freedom and love.   

David Richo defines fear as “a subjective body/mind response to a real or imagined danger” (p. 29).  Right there, you can see that there is plenty of room for there to be fears that are not actually about things in reality.  I find that most people are pretty accurate in identifying fear that is about something real: it is of something specific and they usually know where it comes from.

Anxiety is often something that is unclear to people.  Usually, they know they don’t feel good, sometimes they might even label it as anxiety, however, frequently, the source is a mystery.  David Richo defines anxiety as “a subjective response to a danger that is imagined or unclear” (p. 30).  Well, that makes sense.  He makes the point that usually people respond to appropriate fear (or fear of something that is threatening in actuality) effectively.  When there is anxiety or neurotic fear (fear of something imagined), our skills for dealing with fear are ineffective because the source is either unclear or not real (can’t fight it, can’t flee from it).  So in neurotic fear, actually, what is frightening is the powerlessness we experience in dealing with it. 

I love the illustration he provides:

“Neurotic fear is like a cat’s dread of water:  there is really nothing to be afraid of but he still acts as if it were seriously dangerous and cannot get over his fear”.

I can’t read this without getting that visual.  I am that cat sometimes!  We all are.  I was that cat this morning.  The funny part is the cat is taking things really seriously and has no idea he is being ridiculous.  Once I realized I was being like this cat, I was immediately released from the hold of the fear and love was restored. 

This is why people will sit in my office and tell me that they don’t experience fear:  they don’t know.  That’s why I’m writing this, so you can know your fear.  That way, you can have more power than it.  Imagine if the cat could know there is nothing scary about water.

Alright, so how do we detect the unhelpful fear?

Here are a couple of recommendations from David Richo (with my comments, of course):

1.        Look at your pass times.  Are they covering up a fear of being alone, boredom, of being truly intimate with people in your life?  Look closer:  are you constantly busy?  Always on your phone or focused on people/things that are not in your physical presence?  Do you allow moments still enough to look into someone else’s eyes and let them look into yours?

2.       Are you living in a string of rationalizations?  In order words, are you on the defensive a lot?  Explaining away, justifying your behavior, feelings or thoughts?  Even just inside your own mind?  What if your feelings could just be?  How about a ten second truth?  ‘I’m scared right now’.  ‘I’m hurt right now’.  That’s it.  Take a breath, forget about looking bad or wrong.   Finally, you can be heard/understood by your own self.  We all need to be heard and understood without judgment, why not start inside our own selves?  This is fantastic starting point for moving on and letting go of what is holding you back.

3.       Do you believe that whatever is bothering you will never get better?  Basically, this is the feeling that there is no alternative, which makes us feel stuck and powerless…maybe even hopeless.  This is a good clue that unhelpful fear is underneath whatever is bothering you.

4.       Are you controlled by fear of what might happen?  Yes, it is helpful to look ahead on the road to watch for potential road blocks or disasters.  However, if you are spending all your time in ‘what ifs’, it is paralyzing and you are putting a huge down payment of anxiety, fear and worry about something that might never happen.  That is a waste!

5.       Neurotic (unhelpful) fear is obsessive.  Do you experience re-occurring, intrusive thoughts about whatever is bothering you or do you keep doing the same things without wanting to?  It seems like there is not a whole lot of power or choice when this is happening.  Yup, unhelpful fear is the culprit here. 

Ok, good, now you have some clues about whether you are experiencing unhelpful fears in your life.  That’s an awesome first step.  You really can’t do anything about those guys without knowing they are there. 

Now what?  Don’t try to fix it just yet.  Take some time to notice the different fears that are coming up using these cues.  Notice.  That’s all.  And then…keep reading!

*To learn more about this blog and the author, please visit the About section of this website.

 *This post based on the section "Present Fear: Real and Unreal" (pp. 29-34).