A Bestiary on Fear: What it is and Where it comes from

FearFear is ancient.

Yet, in any given moment, it could be the newest element in your life.

Fear happens suddenly – a feeling of frisson in a single defined moment. At other times it can be a constant, unnoticed influence.

What sort of creature is fear?
The wildest and most ancient forms of this beast are our innate fears. These are reactions that are ‘hard-wired’ into us through natural selection as adaptive advantages to survival. The primal fear seems to be the fear of heights – possibly developed during the Mesozoic period and inherited from our mammalian forbearers.

Next, likely arising during the later Cenozoic period comes the ancient simian fear of snakes.

Later still, an innate aversion to mice and certain insects seems to have arisen since the evolution of Homo sapiens.


All of these dangers would have existed during the lifetimes of our ancestors and have become ingrained fears of an entire species – known to evolutionary biology as the EEA or Environment of Evolutionary Adaptedness – avoiding potential bearers of disease (insects/mice) or death (from a poisonous snake bite or fall).

Such innate aversions give humanity an automatic fight or flight reaction that provides a biological preparedness in certain situations.

With innate fears we see the physiological symptoms that are shared with more domesticated fears – learned fears. Such effects like; hyperventilation, increased heart rate, increased muscle tension (which also causes goose bumps) and ‘butterflies in the stomach’. These symptoms are common to all types of fear and anxiety.

The amygdala is the main brain area aroused by fear in general and plays a large part in ingraining fears that are learnt by experience.

Whatever the source of the fear, this beast will strike at our behaviour with two weapons – Aversion and Paralysis.

The attributes that make a creature prosper in the wild (the ability to develop automatic aversions to dangerous things) can become yoked to new tasks. We learn to fear things that need not be feared and to use a metaphor, we end up like wild bulls, domesticated into dragging heavy ploughs.

Learned fears can be very personal phobias – clowns, celery, and the number 13. Such irrational phobias that only we can see are learned fears.

Like all learned fears, we reinforce these by dwelling on their perceived ‘negativity’, sustaining and perpetuating them.

Many learned aversions are cultural or religious. Fear of taboo, ‘unclean’ animals or certain racial groups or xenophobia towards outsiders in general. These objects of fear are the unholy cows that are shared by whole cultures, their penumbra stretching far beyond the individual.

The last and maybe most damaging type of Fear as far as the individual is concerned; is personal anxiety. This is a fear that throttles potential and can paralyse us throughout our entire lives.

Social anxiety, for instance, can be crippling and heartbreaking to the soul.

While a phobic can avoid clowns or the number 13, a sufferer of social anxiety cannot avoid people entirely and if they succeed they separate themselves from the joy of socialising with other human beings. This fear, like a vicious hound barking at our door, keeps us locked in to ‘protect’ us. At least we can feel this fear and be aware of it when we are confronted with its trigger. Not so with all fears. Some beasts go unnoticed.

These ‘unnoticed beasts’ are the anxieties that have long since won the battle over our behaviours – the times in our lives when we follow the rut or furrow that is our daily life. Seemingly satisfied with our lot, subtle anxieties about change keep us away from other alternatives – without us even being aware we are constantly making a decision not to change. Procrastination and addiction may be the result. Behavioural Therapists refer to this as ‘low frustration tolerance’ – easy comfort being chosen over a period of discomfort, inevitably leading to ever-increasing dissatisfaction. In terms of beasts, this is a grotesque family pet – curled up cosily on your bed, whispering in your ear, sipping at your blood.

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