Understanding and Overcoming Fear

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Fear is not generally an emotion we like to experience. Love, happiness, joy, excitement—most of us would choose those feelings over the distress of fear. And yet, if we ordered our emotions according to their importance for our survival, fear would certainly be at the top. It was our ancestors’ feeling of fear that caused an instantaneous flood of chemicals throughout their bodies, resulting in a quicker heartbeat, greater access to oxygen, sharpened senses, and increased energy. That’s what helped them to fend off an attacker and survive. Fear is not just a feeling—it is a psychological and physiological mechanism that helps us avoid danger and increases our ability to survive.

You don’t have to think hard to know if you’re afraid right this minute; you just know. And yet, like all emotions, fear is surprisingly difficult to define. Fear can save your life by preventing you from swimming in shark-infested waters or it can keep you home night after night, afraid of meeting new people. Fear is a strong emotion that can hold us back, move us forward, and bind us to others in our group. But what exactly is it? 

In Understanding and Overcoming Fear, sociologist Margee Kerr, PhD, explains the physiological and contextual aspects of fear, revealing the complexities of this powerful emotion and explaining why you can never experience the exact same fear twice. In 24 episodes, illustrated with fascinating video and graphics, Margee takes you on a journey similar to the one she has taken in her own work—from considering fear as a toxic, destructive force that needs to be defeated to an emotion with tremendous positive impact in the right circumstances.

The Positive Power of Fear

Since the beginning of the 21st century, horror films have experienced a four-fold growth in market share. Each fall, Americans spend billions of dollars celebrating Halloween and many of us attend haunted-house attractions and similar experiences—paying for the privilege of being terrorized. It sure seems like some people actually love to be afraid.

It used to be accepted that experiences, and our physical responses to them, were inherently good or bad. Now, we know that context is everything. No one wants to feel the sharp sting of fear that comes from being followed while walking down a dark street alone at night. But what if you and your friends are in a haunted castle and a man jumps out at you? You’re likely to shriek (and then laugh), but you’re also likely to say at the end, “Wow, that was fantastic.” Why does it feel so good?

Margee sets out to answer that question, presenting an experiment with participants who had purchased tickets for an “extreme” haunted attraction. Collecting the participants’ self-reported moods and brainwave data before and after, scientists discovered:

  • People reported feeling significantly better after experiencing the recreational fear, including a significant drop in anxiety. EEG data suggests they were more relaxed.
  • Participants felt less tired after the event than before.
  • A majority of participants reported feeling that they had challenged their fears and learned something about themselves.

The study showed that in the context of choice and control, frightening ourselves can be a good thing. It’s a very different story when choice and control are absent, when someone is truly terrified for their life. Although the physiological response might be the same—increased heart rate, rapid breathing, sweaty palms—the meaning we make of these feelings is very different. Every emotional experience is created and felt in the moment, based on context and previous experience, and it is never experienced exactly the same twice.

What Do We Really Fear?

Each of us has our own personal fears that focus our thoughts, drive our decisions, and push us forward for better or for worse. Are you afraid you might have unintentionally offended a coworker? Afraid of the coyote that ran through the neighborhood or of the ants in the bathroom? Individual fears tell us a lot about ourselves, our values, and where we are in our lifecycle. Similarly, the aggregate fears of all Americans can tell us a great deal about where we are as a country and what we do, and do not, want for our future.

Beginning in 2014, researchers at Chapman University in Orange, CA, have conducted an annual Survey of American Fears. By looking at the results in any given year, we can learn what’s on the minds of Americans at that moment. In Understanding and Overcoming Fear, you will discover a great deal about American fears, including:

  • Americans are generally more afraid of becoming seriously ill than of dying and are very fearful of mounting medical bills.
  • In 2016, fears about climate change and pollution didn’t make it into the top 10 concerns. But by 2019, 57 percent of survey respondents feared global warming and climate change, and 68 percent feared the pollution of oceans, rivers, and lakes.
  • In 2014, the number-one reported fear was walking alone at night. In 2019, Americans (of both major political parties) reported their number-one fear as being the existence of corrupt government officials.

These fears are reflected in the concerns of those who seek mental-health support. For example, in 2017, the American Psychological Association introduced a new mental health phenomenon (not an official disorder) called “eco-anxiety,” described as a chronic fear of environmental doom. As you will discover, every nation has its own fears to go along with those that are more universal.

Phobias: Fear Gone Awry

In popular culture, we sometimes joke about phobias, which are defined as irrational and excessive fear reactions to specific situations or environments. We laugh in sitcoms when a woman climbs on a desk shaking because a half-inch spider is in the corner, or when a large man sweats in terror because he’s seen a two-pound dog down the street. But living with a specific phobia can feel like walking around with a time bomb inside you, and studies show they are associated with cardiac disease, a weakened immune system, and more. In this course, you’ll hear about many different types of phobias, including:

  • Trypanophobia: fear of blood, injections, and injuries. This phobia is uniquely physically dangerous as the physiological response can lead to fainting.
  • Trypophobia: fear of holes and repeating patterns. People with this phobia can feel nauseous or dizzy when looking at a pattern such as a honeycomb or strawberry surface, where holes are packed closely together.
  • Ophidiophobia: fear of snakes. Some research has revealed that images of snakes can trigger our threat response even when the images are presented too quickly to register in our conscious awareness.

Luckily, treatment is available for people with phobias. Cognitive behavioral therapies combined with exposure therapy and the correct medication have been helpful, and new therapies are in the works.

In this course, you’ll learn about numerous, effective ways to manage and overcome fears and how to build a better, healthier relationship with fear so that it does what it is designed to do—help us stay alive.

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