Fear conditioning and its effects

All types of fears can have an impact on how you feel and behave. This is particularly true if your fear has developed into a phobia – an ‘irrational’ or ‘silly’ fear.

In this article, you’ll discover:
  • common fears at different life-stages
  • the pattern of fears and phobias
  • classifying types of fears
  • the psychology of fear
  • the effects of fear
  • how to conquer your fears.

When your worries affect your relationship

These fears affect your relationship too – sometimes to a great extent, as for example, with severe OCD.

Then there is fear of people (social anxiety) and fear of crowded-, open-, closed- or small spaces. All of these determine to a great extent what social activities you’d want to take part in or avoid – as a couple or on your own.

If you or your partner suffer from fears, I want you not to think of it as stupid, irrational, a nuisance or mad. It’s really important that you inform yourself and develop some empathy. It’s my aim here to help you do just that. I’d like you to start thinking of that fear problem as ‘interesting’ and become a ‘sleuth’ figuring out where and how it originated.

Let’s start with a little reflection – think for a moment of all the times in your life when you’ve been scared…

Photo: Women sitting in dark room. Text: Common fears at different live stages

The most common childhood fears

Have you ever seen a baby startle and throw out its arms in panic when it feels unsafe? As babies, we came into this world with an instinctive fear of being dropped.

There is hardly a child on the planet that doesn’t have some anxieties – it is part of growing up and learning to live in a dangerous world – real or perceived. However, it’s not the only time anxiety can begin to affect us – that can happen at any time of life.

Some of those childhood fears in the list below may have ‘hung around’ into adulthood. Some might have ‘morphed’ and grown into a phobia:

  • the ‘bogey man’
  • the dark
  • thunder and lightning (I certainly hid under the blankets!), which can also cause a fear of the sky and a fear of wind, for example
  • the bullies
  • clowns (this can even turn into a phobia)
  • balloons – another potential for a phobia
  • losing a parent (did your parents separate or divorce?)
  • not being loved or being unlovable
  • a parent’s wrath
  • having done something wrong
  • a teacher, particularly one that humiliates you (no wonder then some people develop a phobia of long words as they struggle to learn to read!)

… to name but a few. And we’re not even talking about what fears you might suffer from if you’ve suffered childhood adversity, such as abandonment, neglect, poverty and physical- and emotional abuse.

What were your most common fears as a teenager?

As a teenager, perhaps in addition to some of the above fears and phobias, you may have particularly suffered a fear of rejection. This may have comprised of:

  • not fitting in, being ‘left out’
  • not wearing the right clothes or not having the right hair
  • being humiliated and ridiculed
  • your looks not being good enough
  • your parents not loving you (anymore)
  • being thrown out of the house
  • never going to recover from that depression
  • life ‘always’ being miserable
  • not getting a job
  • not finding a boy- or girlfriend
  • not being the ‘right’ gender

These fears are all connected with our inborn essential emotional needs – the need to belong, to be part of a community, attention, friendship and love.

Learn more about the human gives – your essential emotional needs and inborn resources.

What about your insecurities when you met someone you love(d)?

When you meet a potential partner you have different types of fears again. You may be worried that…

  • you aren’t lovable enough
  • you don’t know enough about intimate relationships
  • you’re not making the right impression
  • you’re going to be mistreated
  • you’re going to be abandoned (again)
  • his/her family or friends not liking or accepting you

Can you see how these again are linked with the human givens – our innate essential emotional needs?

Worries when you’re in a long-term relationship or you’re married

When you are in a long-term relationship or marriage you’re not likely to escape the worries. Again you may experience different types of fears, such as:

  • will you be able to pay the bills?
  • will you be able to have children?
  • will your relationship or marriage last?
  • will he/she be faithful?

If you have children (whether or not you’re in a relationship), you may be worried about:

  • their health and well-being – now and in the future
  • not being a good enough parent
  • your children going astray, do drugs, drink too much, have the wrong friends, the ‘wrong’ boy/girlfriend
  • your children ‘not behaving’ and showing you up
Photo: damaged doll's head. Text: 3 common patterns in fears and phobias and your emotional needs.

Can you identify the patterns of fears or even phobias?

You’ve seen how each stage in life offers its own opportunities for worries typical for that stage of development.

However, they all fall into several categories and all with the potential to develop into a full-blown phobia…

You feel physically unsafe

You are in an unsafe environment, such as an abusive relationship, or in a garden when you’re scared of insects or bugs. You’re frightened you could fall from a height, which could develop into a phobia of heights or fear of bridges, etc.

There are a number of reasons why some people in such situations develop phobias and others don’t. My article on overcoming anxiety for no reason may throw a light on why you may be more or less vulnerable to develop a phobia.

You feel emotionally unsafe (insecure)

You’re in an emotionally unsafe environment, such as when in the company of emotionally abusive people – at home, school, socially or at work. This could, for example, develop into social anxiety, particularly in conjunction with other angsts.

You feel out of control

One of our other inborn emotional needs is a need for control and volition – a sense that we can affect the world around us. And, when you suffer from certain fears or phobias, there might be anticipatory anxiety that, at any time, you could be confronted with your most feared situation. In addition, you’re at risk of feeling completely out of control once you’re faced with just that. See also: How to stop panic attacks.

A combination of the three

Very often one leads to another when your fears are thought of ‘not normal’. Agoraphobia, for example, is a combination of the two.

You can also feel spiritually or morally on unsafe grounds
Perhaps your values and beliefs are under pressure.

You know now how all of these fears stem from your essential emotional needs.

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‘Types’ of fear – can we classify them?

The following are all fears of one shape or another. I’ve made an attempt to classify them in order of severity.

However, a word is only a symbol for a thought or a feeling – it’s not like we’re talking about a kilo of this, that or the other. Therefore, you might put these fears in a different order.

  • timidity – more of a character trait
  • unease – just ‘not being quite happy’ with what is taking place
  • worry – a constant worry or one linked to something in the near or even distant future
  • jitters – “butterflies in your stomach”
  • apprehension or foreboding – a sense of unease too
  • angst – fear
  • anxiety – more a ‘general’ feeling of unease or linked with an unpleasant event
  • alarm – your ears ‘prick up’, your whole body feels on hyper-alert
  • fright – time-limited
  • terror – is sheer fear
  • horror – is linked with shock and revulsion
  • panic – is short-lived, but can occur frequently
  • paranoia – lasting or time-bound
  • phobia – severe, ‘irrational’ or ‘silly’ fear
  • trauma – involves the same part of the brain as a phobia does. You can read more about psychological trauma in my articles: Checklist of PTSD symptoms, Coping with PTSD and How to recover from a traumatic birth.

And then there are the nightly ones: nightmares and night terrors – terrifying!

It’s hard to define fear in terms of strength or feeling as I have tried to do in the above list. Some of these terms express an ever-present feeling with ups and downs. Others depend on whether your path happens to cross whatever you’re fearful of.

BTW, phobias are classified in types in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual (DSM-v). See this Pchycom article.

The psychology of fear – conditioning

‘irrational’ fears?

Fears are never irrational, though they may seem ‘silly’ or absolutely bonkers to you or those around you. If you suffer from supposedly irrational fears, I’m hoping to reassure you.

Believe me, when I say that your brain has made a very logical connection at a time of high emotion, though it may be a tad ‘stubborn’ in letting go of its assumptions.

Let me explain…

Let’s take the so-called irrational fear of the sky, fear of rain and fear of the wind, as examples.

Imagine, as a child, or even as an adult, you were exposed to a natural disaster, such as a flood, a hurricane or a combination of these. You were probably terrified and even traumatised at the time, particularly if in the company of caregivers who were noticeably scared. Your brain made a note of all the details – the sounds, the sights, the smells, the temperature and your feelings and filed it in a little almond-shaped structure in your brain called the amygdala.

The amygdala is on guard without your conscious awareness. It filters all incoming information 24/7. If there’s the slightest chance that you might be exposed again to an alike danger, it immediately by-passes logical thought to prepare you to flee or fight.

Anything that remotely resembles the original situation such as sounds, smells, air pressure, news stories, the place you were at, the people around you, screaming, falling objects, you name it, can trigger your amygdala to do its work.

Your heart starts pounding and racing as it triples its efforts to send blood to the major muscle groups in your arms and legs. Your breathing increases at the same time and helps to supply extra oxygen to strengthen your arms and legs. You’ll be able to run like never before, wallop someone you would never have considered, or lift a car of someone dear to you.

Can you see now, how logical that fear of the rain or water, the wind and the sky is and how it’s not surprising if you’ve even developed a phobia of the sky or an ocean phobia? You’ve simply been conditioned to react as you do.

What if you’ve been abused? Is it irrational then to have acquired a fear of being touched, of physical intimacy, of men or women?

And if that fear has developed into a phobia, it’s no wonder if you have a fear of fears!

Let’s take that fear conditioning one step further

Imagine someone brushing their teeth when a bomb drops just outside their window. You can see how brushing teeth or even the smell of toothpaste can lead to a particular fear or even a phobia.

Or what if you’re reading a book or doing some homework when you’re hearing the death-defying scream of someone close to you and discover they’ve just had a terrible accident? What were you reading, doing, seeing feeling? The link between any of that and your gruesome discovery may well now provide the basis of a fear or phobia.

There’s more to these ‘irrational’ fears…

If you’re particularly creative and somewhat anxious in nature, you might be really good at dreaming up all kinds of disasters by using your brain’s reality generator. And/or maybe you’re naturally a bit of a black and white thinker.

You can make yourself even more afraid then by generating fears and even phobias as you expose yourself time and again to the feared images and movies inside your head. So, understandably the fear of the dentist can even develop into a teeth phobia.

In essence, as human beings, we can potentially develop a phobia of everything!

The effects of fear

The effects of fear depend on:

  • the type of fear you suffer
  • your perception of it
  • it’s intensity
  • to what extent it affects your everyday life
  • your resilience
  • your way of dealing with it

The biggest effect is, however, avoidance. In addition, fears – whether deep-seated, irrational, chronic, persistent or new, can potentially compromise rational thinking and thus decision-making.

For example, if your fear of public speaking has developed into a phobia, you’ll do all you can to duck out of having to stand on that stage to give that speech. You may even ditch that meeting where you’re required to give your opinion.

Overcoming your fears

If you feel your fears are ‘over the top’ and you’ve not been able to get a grip on them, I highly recommend you talk to a licensed therapist as soon as possible. I’d particularly like you to seek help if you think you’re on the verge of a nervous breakdown. (See also: FAQ about a nervous breakdown.)

If you’re suffering from a phobia, it’s likely to affect your life to such an extent it’s time you took action. There are several really effective treatments for phobias, so hop over to my article on coping with PTSD, as psychological trauma also involves the amygdala.

You may also be interested in:

I also have a free printable worksheet for you to help you make a start in looking after yourself and becoming more resilient. 🙂

Free printable worksheet


Now that I have explained how and why we can suffer all types of fears and worries, I hope you’ll feel somewhat reassured that there is a reason for your fears and phobias. Your fear is not irrational and you’re not ‘mad’ or ‘crazy’. And, there are definitely ways you can overcome fears and cure phobias.

Let’s not forget though – fears are principally normal! They help to keep us safe. Sometimes, though, we are conditioned to overreact and just need a little professional help to us find our natural balance again.

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Your problem is never too small or too big, too silly, too embarrassing or too complicated to get personal advice (anonymous if you want) from a professional counsellor. They’ll be happy to help. Get the reassurance, support and advice you need now.

Other helpful links

Images derived by work from: cocoparisienne, Pete Linforth

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