What Is Fear?
Fear is a natural response to a disturbing or threatening
situation. It can be helpful. For example, fear can motivate a person to
respond to danger or to make necessary changes in his or her life. But not all
fear is appropriate or healthy.
Fear occurs among people of all ages. It occurs more
frequently among children and the elderly. Children have a more difficult time
with fear because their coping mechanisms are not fully developed. Elderly
people may experience it more often as they cope with physical ailments and
problems associated with age.
When a fear becomes irrational, it is known as a phobia. A
phobia is a fear of something that is not a real threat, or that is not as
great a threat as the person believes. Unlike phobias, simple fears do not
usually require medication or extensive treatment.
What Are the Symptoms of Fear?
The body produces adrenaline when it feels fear. This causes
symptoms such as muscle contraction, increased heart rate, and sweating.
Fear can motivate a person to take action. It can even give him
or her extra energy to do so. Overcoming fear can teach someone to be
courageous and self-sufficient. At the same time, it can impair thinking, so
there is a fine line between a healthy fear and a phobia.
Fear in Children
Fear is very common in children and is a natural part of
Children are often startled by objects and animals they are
not familiar with. They may want to stay indoors. Fear may manifest as shyness
when a youngster begins to socialize with other children.
A good strategy for helping children to overcome their fears
is to help them take small steps toward confronting those fears. For example, if
a fall causes a child to fear roller skates, a parent might encourage the child
to simply watch others roller skate from the sidelines the next time.
Eventually, the child may want to put the skates back on and try again. This process
is known as desensitization (American
Academy of Pediatrics, 2013).
Young children are also often afraid of the dark. This fear
is usually overcome quickly. Being left alone is another common fear that
children exhibit as toddlers but eventually work past.
Teenagers generally have fears about social acceptance. As
they become more confident, the fears diminish. At any age, dealing with
something for the first time can cause fear.
Other fears present bigger challenges for parents. Giving
children the tools they need to feel more confident about their well-being is
the best way to prevent or combat fear in children.
It is important to talk to children about their fears.
Vocalizing fears is often a primary coping mechanism for children.
Fear in Adults
In adults, the elderly often experience fear. Aging can be a
frightening process because it presents people with new situations and
challenges. For example, older Americans often develop a fear of falling as
their mobility decreases. Such fears can be alleviated when they have the right
walking aids, such as a rolling walker or a cane.
Childhood fears that have not been dealt with can become
phobias in adults. Research also shows that children sometimes replicate fears
they see their parents exhibit (Mayo
In both children and adults, physical disabilities and
limitations can cause fears.
When to Seek Medical Help
When a fear begins to interfere with the pattern of daily
life—affecting work, school or parenting, for example—it may have become a
phobia. Seek medical attention if you or your child cannot learn to cope with
fears, or if fear induces anxiety.
New research indicates
that mental health professionals may eventually be better able to understand the risk factors and
underlying mechanisms behind fear, including what triggers it and when to
consider it an abnormal reaction (Schmitz,
A., et al., 2012).