Fear is one of the seven universal emotions that are experienced by everyone around the world. Fear happens when there is threat of harm, either physical, emotional, psychological, real or imagined. Traditionally people considered fear as a “negative” emotion, when in fact fear actually serves an important role in keeping us safe. If people didn’t feel fear, they wouldn’t be able to protect themselves from genuine threats.

Fear has been critical throughout human evolution, especially in ancient times when individuals regularly faced life-or-death situations. Although nowadays, the stakes are lower, fear is still a vital response to physical and emotional danger. It is important to note that people experience occasional bouts of fear or “nerves” before a flight, public speaking, a first date, or taking a test. But when someone’s fear is specific, persistent and impairs their everyday life, that person might have what’s known as a specific phobia. In addition, a persistent fear can sometimes be referred to as anxiety, if the individual constantly feels worried without knowing why, the inability to identify the trigger prevents the person from being able to remove themselves from the threat or situation.

While there are certain things that trigger fear in most of us, we can learn to become afraid of nearly anything. Common fear triggers or phobias include:

  • Darkness or loss of visibility of surroundings
  • Snakes, rodents, spiders and other animals
  • Heights and flying
  • Death and dying
  • Social interaction

Phobias can happen at any time but tend to emerge during childhood or adolescence and the symptoms are often lifelong. With some people, exposure to the feared object or situation can cause extreme anxiety or even panic attacks. Also, it is not uncommon to have multiple phobias: three-quarters of individuals diagnosed with a specific phobia have more than one and the average sufferer has three specific phobias (Eaton, Bienvenu, & Miloyan, 2018). The start of a phobia can sometimes be traced back to a specific event, like being attacked by a dog or a car crash. However, for many more people the start of the phobia is unknown, and this can be extremely concerning for the person. Some people with a specific phobia will opt to change their lifestyles to try to avoid their triggers, such as not using underground travel or avoiding catching a flight.

When fear overtakes or regularly disrupts a person’s life, therapy can be extremely helpful. An essential treatment for fears is exposure therapy, in which a therapist guides the client to gradually and repeatedly engage with their phobia. This is obviously done in a safe environment and this helps to strip away the threat associated with the particular fear. Often a Cognitive behavioural therapy (CBT) approach is applied with exposure therapy, this helps the individual to challenge and reframe their harmful beliefs. For example, someone with a fear of flying may be asked to think about planes, then they may be asked to view pictures of planes, next a trip to the airport, eventually followed by a step onto a plane, and eventually successfully completing a flight.

Stef Gafa’ is a counsellor with Willingness who has a particular interest in trauma, attachment, domestic violence and the LGBT community.


Eaton, W. W., Bienvenu, O. J., & Miloyan, B. (2018). Specific phobias. The lancet. Psychiatry5(8), 678–686. https://doi.org/10.1016/S2215-0366(18)30169-X