The psychology of fear


HUMAN RESPONSE  Taking a few brief moments to weigh up what is happening can help prevent you becoming overwhelmed by fear.

Understanding how fear works in ourselves and in others will help us through this time

Mental Matters
Jannah Walshe

Something scares us. We get afraid and we react from the fear. Seems simple. But although fear seems like a simple concept, it is in fact quite complex.
On the one hand we have an innate survival reaction that we have inherited from our ancestors. This is commonly known as the fight, flight or freeze response. This response is vital for when we are in immediate danger.
Then there is also a cognitive component to fear. This comes from our memories, expectations, personal biases and so on. The innate response is universal to everybody, whereas the cognitive element is unique to each of us.
When something major happens which scares us – like a global pandemic – we can initially go into the fight, flight or freeze response. This means that we may panic buy, rush to stay away from everyone, fight to get tested for the virus, or flap around unsure what we should be doing.
This response also affects our thoughts about what is happening. For some they will feel like they are strong enough to fight it whereas others will go to all lengths to avoid getting sick at all costs.
After time goes by and the initial survival response calms down, our own individual bias kicks in. For example, if we have had bad experiences in the past of being sick, the feeling of fear might be greater. If we expect to get very ill when we get sick, the fear will be greater. If we already had a fear of hospitals, the fear will be greater. And so on. There are so many factors that will influence how you individually react at this stage.
There is also a third factor to consider, that is, fear contagion. Due to the nature of modern media, fear contagion can spread faster than the virus itself. Watching or hearing someone else who’s scared can cause us to be frightened too. We pick up the terror from others and we can react out of this fear without even knowing what is causing the original fear. This is because we are designed to be tuned in to detect other people’s survival reactions.
Seeing someone else panic buy can make us feel that they know something that we don’t and that we should be afraid. Seeing others wearing masks and gloves indicates an immediate danger and hence we feel like we should be scared. This may be true. But it also may not.
If we can take even a few brief moments to weigh up what is happening it can make a huge difference in not becoming overwhelmed by fear and reacting in a way that is different to how you normally would.
At this time it is important to understand fear and recognise that due to the many factors at play, people will and can react in very different ways. Someone else’s way may not make sense to us and ours may seem ridiculous to them. But if we try our best to understand how others are being and show kindness towards them even if we don’t relate to their way, it might make this time a little easier to get through.

Jannah Walshe is a fully accredited psychotherapist, course facilitator and mental-health speaker based in Co Mayo. More information about Jannah can be found at