What is Fear?


Fear is one of the seven universal emotions experienced by everyone around the world. Fear arises with the threat of harm, either physical, emotional, or psychological, real or imagined. While traditionally considered a “negative” emotion, fear actually serves an important role in keeping us safe as it mobilizes us to cope with potential danger.


Feeling fear


The family of fearful experiences can be distinguished in terms of three factors:

    • Intensity: How severe is the harm that is threatened?
    • Timing: Is the harm immediate or impending?
    • Coping: What, if any, actions can be taken to reduce or eliminate the threat?

When we are able to cope with the threat, this lessens or removes the fear. Alternatively, when we are helpless to decrease the threat of harm, this intensifies the fear.

Copyright Atlas of Emotions
Source: Atlas of Emotions

Fear can sometimes take place immediately following surprise and often oscillates with the experience of anger.


What makes us fearful


The universal trigger for fear is the threat of harm, real or imagined. This threat can be for our physical, emotional or psychological well-being. While there are certain things that trigger fear in most of us, we can learn to become afraid of nearly anything.


Common fear triggers:

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

Moods and disorders

Persistent fear can sometimes be referred to as anxiety if we feel constantly worried without knowing why. The inability to identify the trigger prevents us from being able to remove ourselves, or the actual threat, from the situation.


While anxiety is a common experience for many people, it can be considered a disorder when it is recurrent, persistent, intense, and interferes with basic life tasks such as work and sleep.


For more information about anxiety and phobias, read here.


Recognizing fear


Facial expression of fear

The facial expression of fear is often confused with surprise. While both expressions show distinctly raised eyebrows, a fear expression's eyebrows are straighter and more horizontal whereas in surprise they are raised and curved. The upper eyelid is also lifted higher in fear than in surprise, exposing more sclera (white of the eye). Finally, the lips are tensed and stretched in fear but more open and slack in surprise. 


Vocal expression of fear

When experiencing fear, one’s voice often has a higher pitch and more strained tone. One may also scream.


Sensations of fear

Common sensations include feeling cold and shortness of breath. It also may include sweating and trembling or tightening of muscles in the arms and legs.


Posture of fear

The posture of fear can either be one of mobilizing or immobilizing- freezing or moving away.


The function of fear


The universal function of fear is to avoid or reduce harm. Depending on what we have learned in the past about what can protect us in dangerous situations, we are capable of doing many things we wouldn’t typically be able, or willing, to do in order to stop the threat.


The immediate threat of harm focuses our attention, mobilizing us to cope with the danger. In this way, fear can actually save our lives by forcing us to react without having to think about it (e.g., jumping out of the way of a car coming at us). The evolutionary preset actions of fear include fight, flight and freezing.


Responding to fear in ourselves

While traditionally considered a “negative” emotion, fear actually serves an important role in keeping us safe. It can, however, also keep us feeling trapped and prevent us from doing things we’d like to. Whereas some people find fear nearly intolerable and avoid the emotion at all costs, others experience pleasure from feeling fear and seek it out (i.e., watching a horror film).


Responding to fear in others

It takes a well-developed capacity for compassion to respect, feel sympathetic toward, and patiently reassure someone who is afraid of something we are not afraid of (most of us dismiss such fears). We do not need to feel another person's fear to accept it and help them cope.


Additional Resources


Learn to recognize and respond to the emotional expressions of others with our online micro expressions training tools to increase your ability to detect deception and catch subtle emotional cues.


Expand your knowledge of emotional skills and competencies with in-person workshops offered through Paul Ekman International.


Delve into personal exploration and transformation with Cultivating Emotional Balance.


Build your emotional vocabulary with the Atlas of Emotions, a free, interactive learning tool created by Drs. Paul and Eve Ekman at the request of the Dalai Lama.


Read Dr. Ekman’s guide to emotions, the best-seller Emotions Revealed.


Introduce the world of emotions to children in a fun way with Dr. Ekman's official guide to Disney•Pixar's Inside Out.