Interesting Literature

Who Said, ‘We Have Nothing to Fear Except Fear Itself’?

In this week’s Dispatches from The Secret Library , Dr Oliver Tearle examines the origins of a famous phrase

‘We have nothing to fear except fear itself.’ Those words – and the sentiment they convey – are inextricably bound up with Franklin D. Roosevelt. But what are the origins of the phrase ‘nothing to fear but fear itself’? Did Roosevelt originate it?

Let’s start with FDR. Certainly, at his 1933 Presidential Inauguration, Franklin D. Roosevelt did express such a sentiment:

So, first of all, let me assert my firm belief that the only thing we have to fear is … fear itself — nameless, unreasoning, unjustified terror which paralyzes needed efforts to convert retreat into advance. In every dark hour of our national life a leadership of frankness and of vigor has met with that understanding and support of the people themselves which is essential to victory. And I am convinced that you will again give that support to leadership in these critical days.

It’s a fine speech, and conveys a sentiment which will find an echo in many a bosom (indeed, has). The context in which Roosevelt made this speech was the Great Depression that the US was plunged into following the Wall Street crash of 1929, and the gist is that a ‘positive mental attitude’, as it were, will help to prevent the worst possible outcomes from materialising.

essay on fear is fear itself

In the sixteenth century, the great French writer Michel de Montaigne (pictured right) – the man who pretty much invented a whole new genre, the essay – wrote: ‘the thing of which I have most fear is fear’. Although it depends on which translation you read. In another, the wording is slightly different: ‘The thing in the world I am most afraid of is fear, that passion alone, in the trouble of it, exceeding all other accidents.’

Then, in the seventeenth century, the English writer who brought Montaigne’s new invention of the essay form to England and made it his own, Francis Bacon, wrote in his 1623 book De Augmentis Scientiarum : ‘ Nil terribile nisi ipse timor ’, or ‘Nothing is terrible except fear itself.’

Then, in the nineteenth century and in yet another country, the United States, Henry David Thoreau offered in his journal entry for 7 September 1851: ‘Nothing is so much to be feared as fear.’ The context was an entry about atheism:

Miss Martineau’s last book is not so bad as the timidity which fears its influence. As if the popularity of this or that book would be so fatal – & man would not still be man in the world. Nothing is so much to be feared as fear – Atheism may be popular with God himself.

The book referred to was the British social theorist Harriet Martineau’s 1848 book Eastern Life , which put forward the idea that the world’s religions were evolving to become more and more abstract and that (she implied) the end-goal of society was a form of philosophic atheism.

In short, then, the sentiment of the statement ‘we have nothing to fear except fear itself’ originated with Montaigne in the sixteenth century, was probably picked up from Montaigne by Francis Bacon in the seventeenth, and then became a common proverb or axiom in later writers.

The fact that it has become closely associated with Franklin D. Roosevelt has much to do with Roosevelt’s reputation and influence over the world during the 1930s and 1940s; it may have helped that FDR was still ‘the leader of the Free World’ when the Allies went to war against the Axis powers in the Second World War. As war plunged the world into uncertainty, it was worth being reminded that fear itself can be the most powerful weapon our enemies have to disarm us and render us defeated before the fact. This later wartime context may have helped to give Roosevelt’s spin on an old statement a hand in helping it to become, without doubt, the most famous quotation associated with him and his presidency.

Image: via Wikimedia Commons .

essay on fear is fear itself

Discover more from Interesting Literature

Subscribe to get the latest posts to your email.

Type your email…

3 thoughts on “Who Said, ‘We Have Nothing to Fear Except Fear Itself’?”

  • Pingback: Globalists Fear the Unconquerable – ConservativeNewsBriefing
  • Pingback: AmericanThinker: Globalists Fear the Unconquerable - wlvrns!

Montaigne got it from Seneca, Letter 24.12: “there is nothing to fear in your affairs but fear itself”

Leave a Reply Cancel reply

Subscribe now to keep reading and get access to the full archive.

Continue reading

This is preeminently the time to speak the truth, the whole truth, frankly and boldly. Nor need we shrink from honestly facing conditions in our country today.

This great Nation will endure as it has endured, will revive and will prosper.

So, first of all, let me assert my firm belief that the only thing we have to fear is fear itself - nameless, unreasoning, unjustified terror which paralyzes needed efforts to convert retreat into advance. In every dark hour of our national life a leadership of frankness and vigor has met with that understanding and support of the people themselves which is essential to victory. I am convinced that you will again give that support to leadership in these critical days. In such a spirit on my part and on yours we face our common difficulties. They concern, thank God, only material things. Values have shrunken to fantastic levels; taxes have risen; our ability to pay has fallen; government of all kinds is faced by serious curtailment of income; the means of exchange are frozen in the currents of trade; the withered leaves of industrial enterprise lie on every side; farmers find no markets for their produce; the savings of many years in thousands of families are gone. More important, a host of unemployed citizens face the grim problem of existence, and an equally great number toil with little return. Only a foolish optimist can deny the dark realities of the moment. Yet our distress comes from no failure of substance. We are stricken by no plague of locusts. Compared with the perils which our forefathers conquered because they believed and were not afraid, we have still much to be thankful for. Nature still offers her bounty and human efforts have multiplied it. Plenty is at our doorstep, but a generous use of it languishes in the very sight of the supply. Primarily this is because the rulers of the exchange of mankind's goods have failed, through their own stubbornness and their own incompetence, have admitted their failure, and abdicated. Practices of the unscrupulous money changers stand indicted in the court of public opinion, rejected by the hearts and minds of men. True they have tried, but their efforts have been cast in the pattern of an outworn tradition. Faced by failure of credit they have proposed only the lending of more money. Stripped of the lure of profit by which to induce our people to follow their false leadership, they have resorted to exhortations, pleading tearfully for restored confidence. They know only the rules of a generation of self-seekers. They have no vision, and when there is no vision the people perish. The money changers have fled from their high seats in the temple of our civilization. We may now restore that temple to the ancient truths. The measure of the restoration lies in the extent to which we apply social values more noble than mere monetary profit. Happiness lies not in the mere possession of money; it lies in the joy of achievement, in the thrill of creative effort. The joy and moral stimulation of work no longer must be forgotten in the mad chase of evanescent profits. These dark days will be worth all they cost us if they teach us that our true destiny is not to be ministered unto but to minister to ourselves and to our fellow men. Recognition of the falsity of material wealth as the standard of success goes hand in hand with the abandonment of the false belief that public office and high political position are to be valued only by the standards of pride of place and personal profit; and there must be an end to a conduct in banking and in business which too often has given to a sacred trust the likeness of callous and selfish wrongdoing. Small wonder that confidence languishes, for it thrives only on honesty, on honor, on the sacredness of obligations, on faithful protection, on unselfish performance; without them it cannot live. Restoration calls, however, not for changes in ethics alone. This Nation asks for action, and action now. Our greatest primary task is to put people to work. This is no unsolvable problem if we face it wisely and courageously. It can be accomplished in part by direct recruiting by the Government itself, treating the task as we would treat the emergency of a war, but at the same time, through this employment, accomplishing greatly needed projects to stimulate and reorganize the use of our natural resources. Hand in hand with this we must frankly recognize the overbalance of population in our industrial centers and, by engaging on a national scale in a redistribution, endeavor to provide a better use of the land for those best fitted for the land. The task can be helped by definite efforts to raise the values of agricultural products and with this the power to purchase the output of our cities. It can be helped by preventing realistically the tragedy of the growing loss through foreclosure of our small homes and our farms. It can be helped by insistence that the Federal, State, and local governments act forthwith on the demand that their cost be drastically reduced. It can be helped by the unifying of relief activities which today are often scattered, uneconomical, and unequal. It can be helped by national planning for and supervision of all forms of transportation and of communications and other utilities which have a definitely public character. There are many ways in which it can be helped, but it can never be helped merely by talking about it. We must act and act quickly. Finally, in our progress toward a resumption of work we require two safeguards against a return of the evils of the old order; there must be a strict supervision of all banking and credits and investments; there must be an end to speculation with other people's money, and there must be provision for an adequate but sound currency. There are the lines of attack. I shall presently urge upon a new Congress in special session detailed measures for their fulfillment, and I shall seek the immediate assistance of the several States. Through this program of action we address ourselves to putting our own national house in order and making income balance outgo. Our international trade relations, though vastly important, are in point of time and necessity secondary to the establishment of a sound national economy. I favor as a practical policy the putting of first things first. I shall spare no effort to restore world trade by international economic readjustment, but the emergency at home cannot wait on that accomplishment. The basic thought that guides these specific means of national recovery is not narrowly nationalistic. It is the insistence, as a first consideration, upon the interdependence of the various elements in all parts of the United States--a recognition of the old and permanently important manifestation of the American spirit of the pioneer. It is the way to recovery. It is the immediate way. It is the strongest assurance that the recovery will endure. In the field of world policy I would dedicate this Nation to the policy of the good neighbor--the neighbor who resolutely respects himself and, because he does so, respects the rights of others-- the neighbor who respects his obligations and respects the sanctity of his agreements in and with a world of neighbors. If I read the temper of our people correctly, we now realize as we have never realized before our interdependence on each other; that we can not merely take but we must give as well; that if we are to go forward, we must move as a trained and loyal army willing to sacrifice for the good of a common discipline, because without such discipline no progress is made, no leadership becomes effective. We are, I know, ready and willing to submit our lives and property to such discipline, because it makes possible a leadership which aims at a larger good. This I propose to offer, pledging that the larger purposes will bind upon us all as a sacred obligation with a unity of duty hitherto evoked only in time of armed strife. With this pledge taken, I assume unhesitatingly the leadership of this great army of our people dedicated to a disciplined attack upon our common problems. Action in this image and to this end is feasible under the form of government which we have inherited from our ancestors. Our Constitution is so simple and practical that it is possible always to meet extraordinary needs by changes in emphasis and arrangement without loss of essential form. That is why our constitutional system has proved itself the most superbly enduring political mechanism the modern world has produced. It has met every stress of vast expansion of territory, of foreign wars, of bitter internal strife, of world relations. It is to be hoped that the normal balance of executive and legislative authority may be wholly adequate to meet the unprecedented task before us. But it may be that an unprecedented demand and need for undelayed action may call for temporary departure from that normal balance of public procedure. I am prepared under my constitutional duty to recommend the measures that a stricken nation in the midst of a stricken world may require. These measures, or such other measures as the Congress may build out of its experience and wisdom, I shall seek, within my constitutional authority, to bring to speedy adoption. But in the event that the Congress shall fail to take one of these two courses, and in the event that the national emergency is still critical, I shall not evade the clear course of duty that will then confront me. I shall ask the Congress for the one remaining instrument to meet the crisis--broad Executive power to wage a war against the emergency, as great as the power that would be given to me if we were in fact invaded by a foreign foe. For the trust reposed in me I will return the courage and the devotion that befit the time. I can do no less. We face the arduous days that lie before us in the warm courage of the national unity; with the clear consciousness of seeking old and precious moral values; with the clean satisfaction that comes from the stem performance of duty by old and young alike. We aim at the assurance of a rounded and permanent national life. We do not distrust the future of essential democracy. The people of the United States have not failed. In their need they have registered a mandate that they want direct, vigorous action. They have asked for discipline and direction under leadership. They have made me the present instrument of their wishes. In the spirit of the gift I take it. In this dedication of a Nation we humbly ask the blessing of God. May He protect each and every one of us. May He guide me in the days to come.  

More History

Also called the Persian Wars , the Greco-Persian Wars were fought for almost half a century from 492 BC - 449 BC. Greece won against enormous odds. Here is more:

Battle of Marathon Battle of Thermopylae Battle of Salamis Battle of Plataea

Franklin D. Roosevelt: 'The only thing we have to fear is fear itself.'

The only thing we have to fear is fear itself.

Franklin D. Roosevelt once famously said, 'The only thing we have to fear is fear itself.' This powerful quote has since become embedded in our collective consciousness, reminding us of the importance of conquering our fears. At its core, this quote suggests that fear can often be more crippling than the actual situation that evokes it. It highlights the paradoxical nature of fear - an emotion that can both protect us from harm and prevent us from realizing our full potential. Roosevelt's words serve as a poignant reminder that it is our perception of fear rather than fear itself that can truly hinder our progress.Fear is a natural and instinctual response to perceived danger or the unknown. It has evolved as a survival mechanism to keep us safe in potentially hazardous situations. However, when fear becomes excessive or irrational, it can impede personal growth and limit our ability to take risks. Roosevelt's quote challenges us to question why we allow fear to hold us back and encourages us to confront it head-on.But what if there is more to fear than meets the eye? Suppose fear is not just an emotion but a philosophical concept that reflects the fundamental struggle between our primal instincts and our higher cognitive abilities. This notion introduces the dualistic nature of fear, where it serves as a barrier to overcome as well as a catalyst for personal transformation.On one hand, fear can be paralyzing, causing us to retreat into our comfort zones and avoid taking necessary risks. It can prevent us from pursuing our dreams, trying new things, or seizing opportunities that could lead to personal or professional growth. Fear can become a self-fulfilling prophecy, trapping us in a cycle of missed opportunities and unfulfilled potential. In this sense, fear itself becomes the true obstacle to our success and happiness, as Roosevelt aptly pointed out.Yet, fear can also be a driving force for change and growth. It can be a powerful motivator that pushes us beyond our limits, encouraging us to confront our weaknesses, and ultimately emerge stronger. By channeling fear into productive action, we can harness its energy and transform it into courage. It is in those moments of facing our fears that we often discover our true strength and resilience. We realize that fear is not something to be defeated, but rather a valuable teacher that can lead us to self-discovery and personal development.In essence, the quote by Roosevelt challenges us to redefine our relationship with fear. Rather than allowing it to dictate our choices and imprison us in a state of stagnation, we should strive to understand and confront our fears. By acknowledging that fear itself is often the only real obstacle we face, we can adopt a mindset of bravery and resilience.In doing so, we can embrace fear as a transformative force that propels us towards our dreams and goals. It is in the face of fear that we find our truest selves, pushing our boundaries and uncovering our hidden potential. Roosevelt's words, although seemingly straightforward, invite us to explore fear from a philosophical perspective, unleashing its power as both an obstacle and a catalyst for growth.Ultimately, the quote resonates with the human experience, reminding us that fear is an inseparable part of life. It is not something to be eradicated but rather harnessed and understood. By acknowledging our fears and choosing to confront them, we can transcend their limitations and embrace a life filled with courage, growth, and fulfillment. As we navigate the complexities of existence, let us remember Roosevelt's timeless wisdom and choose to conquer fear itself.

Franklin D. Roosevelt: 'I ask you to judge me by the enemies I have made.'

Franklin d. roosevelt: 'in politics, nothing happens by accident. if it happens, you can bet it was planned that way.'.

Self-Paced Courses : Explore American history with top historians at your own time and pace!

  • AP US History Study Guide
  • History U: Courses for High School Students
  • History School: Summer Enrichment
  • Lesson Plans
  • Classroom Resources
  • Spotlights on Primary Sources
  • Professional Development (Academic Year)
  • Professional Development (Summer)
  • Book Breaks
  • Inside the Vault
  • Self-Paced Courses
  • Browse All Resources
  • Search by Issue
  • Search by Essay
  • Become a Member (Free)
  • Monthly Offer (Free for Members)
  • Program Information
  • Scholarships and Financial Aid
  • Applying and Enrolling
  • Eligibility (In-Person)
  • EduHam Online
  • Hamilton Cast Read Alongs
  • Official Website
  • Press Coverage
  • Veterans Legacy Program
  • The Declaration at 250
  • Black Lives in the Founding Era
  • Celebrating American Historical Holidays
  • Browse All Programs
  • Donate Items to the Collection
  • Search Our Catalog
  • Research Guides
  • Rights and Reproductions
  • See Our Documents on Display
  • Bring an Exhibition to Your Organization
  • Interactive Exhibitions Online
  • About the Transcription Program
  • Civil War Letters
  • Founding Era Newspapers
  • College Fellowships in American History
  • Scholarly Fellowship Program
  • Richard Gilder History Prize
  • David McCullough Essay Prize
  • Affiliate School Scholarships
  • Nominate a Teacher
  • Eligibility
  • State Winners
  • National Winners
  • Gilder Lehrman Lincoln Prize
  • Gilder Lehrman Military History Prize
  • George Washington Prize
  • Frederick Douglass Book Prize
  • Our Mission and History
  • Annual Report
  • Contact Information
  • Student Advisory Council
  • Teacher Advisory Council
  • Board of Trustees
  • Remembering Richard Gilder
  • President's Council
  • Scholarly Advisory Board
  • Internships
  • Our Partners
  • Press Releases

History Resources

essay on fear is fear itself

Franklin D. Roosevelt’s First Inauguration, 1933

A spotlight on a primary source by franklin d. roosevelt.

First Inaugural Address of Franklin D. Roosevelt, March 4, 1933. (GLC00675)

The address is most remembered for FDR’s statement that "the only thing we have to fear is fear itself," but it is also a declaration of war against economic hardship, a call to Americans to work together to face "the dark hour," and a notice of his intention to reorganize and redirect government action. In laying out his approach to rescuing the economy and tempering the steadily rising rate of unemployment, he is realistic about the future, but remains hopeful: "Only a foolish optimist can deny the dark realities of the moment. Yet our distress comes from no failure of substance. . . . Compared with the perils which our forefathers conquered because they believed and were not afraid, we have still much to be thankful for."

The New Deal began almost immediately. The Emergency Banking Relief Act was signed five days after the inauguration and was joined by numerous programs and agencies, some more successful than others.

A pdf of the document is available.

This is preeminently the time to speak the truth, the whole truth, frankly and boldly. Nor need we shrink from honestly facing conditions in our country to-day. This great Nation will endure as it has endured, will revive and will prosper. So, first of all, let me assert my firm belief that the only thing we have to fear is fear itself—nameless, unreasoning, unjustified terror which paralyzes needed efforts to convert retreat into advance. In every dark hour of our national life a leadership of frankness and vigor has met with that understanding and support of the people themselves which is essential to victory. . . .

The Nation asks for action, and action now.

Our greatest primary task is to put people to work. This is no unsolvable problem if we face it wisely and courageously. It can be accomplished in part by direct recruiting by the Government itself, treating the task as we would treat the emergency of a war, but at the same time, through this employment, accomplishing greatly needed projects to stimulate and reorganize the use of our national resources. . . .

. . . in the event that the national emergency is still critical, I shall not evade the clear course of duty that will then confront me. I shall ask the Congress for the one remaining instrument to meet the crisis—broad Executive power to wage a war against the emergency, as great as the power that would be given to me if we were in fact invaded by a foreign foe.

Questions for Discussion

Read the introduction, view the images of the pamphlet printing of the address, and read the excerpts of Franklin D. Roosevelt’s First Inaugural Address. Then apply your knowledge of American history to answer the following questions:

*** NOTE: Recordings exist of FDR’s first inaugural speech. A search of the web will reveal an authentic and attributable excerpt at the History Matters site. Students may benefit by following along, listening to not only the message but also the cadence and patrician speech patterns of the President reading the text.

  • Why does the newly elected President Franklin Roosevelt note that he is taking office at a particularly “dark hour of our national life”?
  • How does Roosevelt suggest that the massive problem facing the national should be addressed?
  • Why do you think FDR uses the analogy to paralysis to illustrate the problem facing the nation and also a potential cure?

Extra Assignment : How does FDR’s speech indicate that he would seek to expand the power of the president beyond that of his immediate predecessors?

A printer-friendly version is available  here .

Stay up to date, and subscribe to our quarterly newsletter..

Learn how the Institute impacts history education through our work guiding teachers, energizing students, and supporting research.

October 10, 2019

48 min read

On the Nature of Fear

Experts from the fields of human and animal affective neuroscience discuss their own definitions of fear and how we should study it

By Dean Mobbs , Ralph Adolphs , Michael S. Fanselow , Lisa Feldman Barrett , Joseph E. LeDoux , Kerry Ressler , Kay M. Tye & Nature Neuroscience

essay on fear is fear itself

Arjo Van Timmeren Getty Images

What is fear? The answer seems simple, yet a vigorous debate concerning its meaning has been playing out over the vista of affective neuroscience. This debate has a long history, but it was recently reignited by Joseph LeDoux, who proposed that we should not only redefine fear but also change the way we experimentally investigate this emotion. At the core of this debate lies the view that emotions are conscious, subjective states. For example, ‘feelings’ related to fear, such as horror or terror, are cognitively assembled conceptions of one’s situation, rather than preformed, innate mental states inherited from animals. LeDoux thus argues such complex states of the human brain cannot be studied in animals. Instead, he proposes that ‘defensive survival circuits’ that underlie defensive behaviors be the focus of research in animals. These hard-wired circuits are proposed to be orthogonal to subjective fear states that presumably involve higher-order circuits—they can modulate but do not determine the emotion. An equally provocative theory is Lisa Feldman Barrett’s ‘theory of constructed emotion’, which proposes that the human brain constructs instances of fear as a consequence of predicting and inferring the cause of incoming sensory inputs from the body (i.e., interoceptive and somatosensory inputs) and the world (i.e., exteroceptive inputs). Barrett proposes that a brain is continually projecting itself forward in time, predicting skeletomotor and visceromotor changes and inferring the sensory changes that will result from these motor actions. Probably most controversial about Barrett’s theory is that it proposes that fear, like other emotion categories, does not have a hard-wired neuroanatomical profile but is part of a dynamic system in which prediction signals are understood as ad hoc, abstract categories or concepts that are generatively assembled from past experiences that are similar to present conditions. In this view, the brain is a categorization machine, continually creating contextually relevant concepts that are appropriate to an animal’s niche.

These thought-provoking views seem to go against other prominent views, such as the basic (or primary) fear circuits theory of the late Jaak Panksepp and other celebrated luminaries in the field (for example, Michael Davis, Robert Bolles, O. Hobart Mowrer). For example, Ralph Adolphs emphasizes the universality of defensive behaviors, which adds credence to the view that fear circuits are mirrored across species and therefore partly innate. Michael Fanselow proposes that fear (and anxiety) can be placed along a threat-imminence continuum, which acts as a general organizing principle, and where threat intensity can be linked to motivational processes and defensive behaviors. Likewise, Kay Tye suggests that fear is a negative internal state that drives and coordinates defensive responses. These views see defensive behaviors as the manifestation of hard-wired fear (or survival) circuits and are controlled and modified by cognitively flexible circuits. While this debate has begun to wash up on the shoreline of clinical science and practice, there is still much needed agreement between the fields of basic and clinical science on how to define and investigate fear and anxiety. Here we asked some of the most influential contemporary scientists to discuss their perspective. Covering both human and animal research, each will present one argument for each of the discussion points below.

Q1: Dean Mobbs (moderator): How do you define fear and how is your definition supported by neuroscience?

On supporting science journalism.

If you're enjoying this article, consider supporting our award-winning journalism by subscribing . By purchasing a subscription you are helping to ensure the future of impactful stories about the discoveries and ideas shaping our world today.

Ralph Adolphs (RA):  Fear can only be defined based on observation of behavior in a natural environment, not neuroscience. In my view, fear is a psychological state with specific functional properties, conceptually distinct from conscious experience; it is a latent variable that provides a causal explanation of observed fear-related behaviors. Fear refers to a rough category of states with similar functions; science will likely revise this picture and show us that there are different kinds of fear (perhaps a dozen or so) that depend on different neural systems.

The functional properties that define the state of fear are those that, in the light of evolution, have made this state adaptive for coping with a particular class of threats to survival, such as predators. Fear has several functional properties—such as persistence, learning, scalability and generalizability—that distinguish emotion states from reflexes and fixed-action patterns, although the latter can of course also contribute to behavior.

The neural circuits that regulate an animal’s fear-related behavior exhibit many of these same functional properties, including in the mouse hypothalamus 2 , are initial evidence that this brain structure is not merely involved in translating emotion states into behaviors, but plays a role in the central emotion state itself. Neuropsychological dissociations of fear from other emotions show that fear is a distinct category.

Michael Fanselow (MF):  Fear is a neural–behavior system that evolved to protect animals against environmental threats to what John Garcia called the external milieu (as opposed to the internal milieu), with predation being the principal driving force behind that evolution (for example, as opposed to a toxin). This is the organizing idea behind my definition of fear. The complete definition must also include the signals giving rise to fear (antecedents) and objectively observable behaviors (consequents). The neuroscientific support for this definition is that many signals of external threat, such as cues signaling possible pain, the presence of natural predators and odors of conspecifics that have recently experienced external threats, all activate overlapping circuits and induce a common set of behaviors (for example, freezing and analgesia in rodents). Equally important as neuroscientific support is support from fieldwork, which has repeatedly shown that behaviors such as freezing enhance survival in the face of predators.

Lisa Feldman Barrett (LFB):  I hypothesize that every mental event, fear or otherwise, is constructed in an animal’s brain as a plan for assembling motor actions and the visceromotor actions that support them, as well as the expected sensory consequences of those actions. The latter constitute an animal’s experience of its surrounding niche (sights, sounds, smells, etc.), including the affective value of objects. Here ‘value’ is a way of describing a brain’s estimation of its body’s state (i.e., interoceptive and skeletomotor predictions) and how that state will change as the animal moves or encodes something new. The plan is an inference (or a set of inferences) that is constructed from learned or innate priors that are similar to the present conditions; they represent the brain’s best guess as to the causes of expected sensory inputs and what to do about them.

The function most frequently associated with fear is protection from threat. The corresponding definition of fear is an instance an animal’s brain constructs defensive actions for survival. A human brain might construct inferences that are similar to present conditions in terms of sensory or perceptual features, but the inferences can also be functional and therefore abstract, and thus they may or may not be initiated by events that are typically defined as fear stimuli and may or may not result in the behaviors that are typically defined as fear behaviors. For example, sometimes humans may laugh or fall asleep in the face of a threat. In this view, fear is not defined by the sensory specifics of an eliciting stimulus or by a specific physical action generated by the animal; rather, it is characterized in terms of a situated function or goal: a particular set of action and sensory consequences that are inferred, based on priors, to serve a particular function in a similar situation (for example, protection).

In cognitive science, a set of objects or events that are similar in some way to one another constitute a category, so constructing inferences can also be described as constructing categories. Another way to phrase my hypothesis, then, is that a brain is dynamically constructing categories as guesses about which motor actions to take, what their sensory consequences will be, and the causes of those actions and expected sensory inputs. A representation of a category is a concept, and so the hypothesis can also be phrased this way: a brain is dynamically constructing concepts as hypotheses about the causes of upcoming motor actions and their expected sensory consequences. The concepts or categories are constructed in a situation-by-situation manner, so they are called ad hoc concepts or categories. In this way, biological categories can be considered ad hoc conceptual categories.

Joseph LeDoux (JL):  I have long maintained that conscious emotional experiences are, like all other conscious experiences, cognitively assembled by cortical circuits. Fear, for example, is a conscious awareness that you are in harm’s way. Activation of subcortical circuits controlling behavioral and physiological responses that occur at the same time can intensify the experience by providing inputs to the cognitive circuits, but they do not determine the content of the experience. The experience itself, in my model, is the result of pattern completion of one’s personal fear schema, which gives rise to some variant of what you have come to know as one of the many varieties subsumed under the concept of ‘fear’ that you have built up by accumulating experiences over the course of your life. Fear can even occur when some or all of the subcortically triggered consequences are absent: when the threat alone generates memory-based expectations that mentally simulate the missing elements, thereby pattern-completing your fear schema. Fear is often said to be universal. But instead what is universal is danger. The human expereince of being in danger is personal and unique. While other animals may have some kind of experience when in danger, it is not possible to scientifically measure what they experience, and if we could, it is unlikely it would be equivalent to the kind the of cognitively assembled personal awareness of being in harm’s way that humans experience. Such a cognitive account would seem necessary to explain, in one framework, the variety of threatening situations in which one can consciously experience fear (for example, predatory, conspecific, homeostatic, social, existential).

Kerry Ressler (KR):  My definition of fear is one that is pragmatic and clinical, perhaps a ‘functionalist’ definition from Adolph’s perspective. ‘Fear’ is the combination of defensive responses—physiological, behavioral and (perhaps in the case of humans) the conscious experience and interpretations of these responses—that are stimulated by specific stimuli. In the case of experimental systems these stimuli are external cues, but presumably in humans can have internal representations as well (thoughts and memories that can be fear-inducing cues themselves). Such fear-inducing cues result in active defensive responses that gradually subside when the stimulus is no longer present. Clinically, fear can be thought of as mirroring the response to a specific cue (for example, the fear of snakes), while anxiety is a more long-lasting phenomenon that may not be specific to overt cues. Decades of preclinical neuroscience studies examining mechanisms of Pavlovian fear or threat conditioning have, in conjunction with human neuroimaging work, indicated the involvement of multiple brain regions in communication with the amygdala and its downstream connections in support of the ‘hardwired’ regulation of subcortical and brainstem areas mediating the cardiovascular, respiratory, autonomic nervous system, hormonal, startle, freezing and other behavioral ‘fear’ or ‘threat’ reflexes.


Credit: Ekaterina Nosenko Getty Images

Kay Tye (KT):  Fear is an intensely negative internal state. It conducts orchestration of coordinated functions serving to arouse our peak performance for avoidance, escape or confrontation. Fear resembles a dictator that makes all other brain processes (from cognition to breathing) its slave. Fear can be innate or learned. Innate fear can be expressed in response to environmental stimuli without prior experience, such as that of snakes and spiders in humans and to predator odor in rodents. Fear associations—primarily studied in the context of Pavlovian fear conditioning—are the most rapidly learned (one trial), robustly encoded and retrieved, and prone to activate multiple memory systems. Given its critical importance in survival and its authoritarian command over the rest of the brain, fear should be one of the most extensively studied topics in neuroscience, though it trails behind investigation of sensory and motor processes due to its subjective nature. Watching others exhibit the behavioral expressions and responses of fear may invoke emotional contagion or support learning about the environment. The usage of the term ‘fear’ in the field of behavioral neuroscience has taken on a related—but distinct—meaning through the extensive use and study of a very stereotyped behavioral paradigm originally termed ‘fear conditioning’. Fear conditioning is arguably the most commonly used behavioral paradigm in neuroscience and has been most comprehensively mined in terms of neural circuit dissection with rodent models but has also been used in humans, primates and even invertebrates. Fear conditioning refers to the Pavlovian pairing of a conditioned stimulus (most often an auditory pure tone) with a foot shock that is most often presented upon the termination of the conditioned stimulus.

Q2: How does your theory of fear separate neural circuits for feeling, perception and action?

RA:  I don’t claim to have a theory, but in my view fear, feeling, perception and action are all distinct. Fear causally interacts with many other processes, including perception, action planning, attention, memory and others. But it is distinct in that we can manipulate fear independently of many other cognitive variables. Losing perception, as in blindness, doesn’t make you lose fear, merely the ability to induce it visually; losing all behavior, as when paralyzed, also doesn’t make you lose fear; similarly for memory and other processes. It is important to note that a state of fear by itself does nothing: it needs to connect with all these other processes to result in behavior (as is the case for perception, attention, etc., themselves). Most important is the distinction between feeling fear (the conscious experience of fear) and the functional state of fear (the state that explains all the effects a threatening stimulus has on cognition and behavior). I’m agnostic about how these are related, but I think for methodological reasons, for example, the ability to study fear in nonhuman animals, we need to keep them conceptually separate. It is also very difficult to distinguish the neural correlates of feeling fear and the functional state of fear. All of the above suggest some cognitive architecture defined by constitutive and causal relations between processes. How this is actually neurally implemented in no doubt varies between phyla and classes; fear in an octopus will have very different neural details than fear in a human or a rat.

MF:  It doesn’t. The relevant circuit integrates them; perception of threat leads to feelings and to actions. Activation of the fear state also feeds back on perceptual systems, altering how they react to environmental stimuli. The perception of threat is a critical determinant of both the magnitude of fear and the topography of defensive behavior. Note that not all actions stem from feelings, but all fear-related feelings lead to some change in action. If they didn’t, they would lose biological meaning and, to the extent that feelings require energy, they would be eliminated by evolution. A complete circuit connects and integrates these components into effective defensive patterns.

LFB:  In my view, this is not the optimal question to ask about fear because it rests on an unfounded assumption that the brain is best understood as collections of neurons, grouped together in anatomically separate systems (neural circuits) for perceptions, mental events, feelings and various types of action (for example, freezing, running, etc.), which pass information back and forth to one another like a baton in a relay race. My research approach is guided by the alternative assumption that the brain should be understood as a complex dynamical system that is composed of elements: circuits or subnetworks made of neurons and supporting glial cells. These elements do not function independently of one another, because their arrangement and organization change dynamically. Even the neurons that constitute change dynamically. The brain, as a dynamical system, is continuously traversing through a succession of events, referred to as its state space, which is specified as values for a set of features that describe the system’s current state. Features are physical (for example, neural, physiological, chemical) and mental (perceptual, affective, cognitive, etc.). In this view, the brain works by prediction and correction rather than through stimulus and response. Within the dynamics of a particular state of the system perceptions are the result of motor preparation, rather than the other way around (as suggested by a stimulus–response approach).

JL:  In my scheme, fear is the feeling of being afraid. I would refer to ‘perception’ and ‘action’ in this context as ‘threat detection’ and ‘defensive responding’. I view the experience of fear and behavioral reactions as separate consequences of threat detection and mediated by different but interacting circuits. Threat detection obviously starts with sensory processing, research on which is informative in illustrating the relationship between stimulus processing, behavior and experience. For example, studies of visual perception in patients with blindsight show that the path to conscious perceptual experience can be dissociated from the path to behavior. This suggests that the correlation of perceptual experience with behavior in healthy brains may be due to parallel processing of sensory information by different systems and does not necessarily mean that the experience and behavior are entwined in the brain. Perceptual researchers thus tend to be cautious when extrapolating from behavioral responses to experience. In terms of fear, blindsight is again informative. These patients respond to threats but do not report awareness of the threat stimulus or conscious feelings of fear; self-report of conscious feelings in such patients correlates with neocortical activity. Similarly, in subliminal-stimulation studies of healthy humans, threats activate subcortical defensive circuits involving the amygdala and elicit physiological responses in the absence of stimulus awareness; feelings are not reported even when specifically asked about. The circuits that control behaviors that are only sometimes correlated with fear experiences are thus not necessarily the circuits that underlie the experiences. When we label these circuits and behaviors with the term ’fear’ we propagate conceptual confusion.

KR:  I think that we can, at a neuroscience level, make some distinctions between the sensory components (for example, sensory thalamus and cortex: feeling), integrative cognitive components (for example, associative cortex and medial prefrontal cortex: perception) and reflexive and behavioral components (for example, amygdala, striatum, brainstem: action). However, how these distinct circuits map upon conscious vs. behavioral aspects of fear processing may be more difficult to parse. Progress in dissecting the neural connections of fear and threat has contributed to our understanding of how they regulate the autonomic, physiological and behavioral activity patterns that together comprise the ‘fear reflex’, which appears to be highly conserved across species. Some aspects of these different components are clearly represented in similar areas—for example, medial prefrontal cortex and amygdala activation are seen with threat perception in humans, but are also clearly involved in actions underlying threat behaviors across species—whereas other regions, for example, brainstem nuclei, may be involved primarily in the action component of the fear process.

KT:  Initial information flow arrives via sensory inputs that propagate to limbic circuits (for example, amygdala), which then feeds forward to downstream targets (for example, striatum, basal ganglia), where emotional state combines with threat imminence to promote action selection. Limbic signals can then feed back onto the sensory systems to alter perception. Fear itself does not map onto an individual motor output; it is an intermediate process that links sensory processing to action selection. My current conceptual model consists of three psychological processes that determine importance (or salience), valence and action, respectively. These three processes are mediated by different circuits. For example, if a grazing deer hears a twig snap, it must initially assess the importance of the stimulus. If it is in a clear landscape with nowhere for a predator to hide, then the stimulus may be deemed unimportant and the deer may go on grazing. If the deer sees a familiar conspecific, then it may interpret the stimulus as a positive valence signal, prompting selection of agonistic social behavior or approach. If there is dense brush, then the potential threat of a predator signaled by the stimulus may trigger an internal state of fear. Given a fear state, the outcome depends heavily on threat imminence. For example, if the predator is far away or its location is unknown, it may be most adaptive to hide or freeze to avoid detection by the predator. If the predator is at an intermediate distance where detection is likely or has already happened, then escape may be the best strategy. If the predator is mounting an attack, then defensive behavior to fight off the predator may be the best response.


Credit: Getty Images

Q3: Are there different defensive circuits (for example, predatory vs. social, survival circuits, reactive vs cognitive fears), and if so, are they orthogonal or synergistic? What is the evidence for your position?

RA:  Yes, I think there is very good evidence that there are neural circuits specialized for subtypes of fear. Fear is not one thing. For instance, a circuit involving the superior colliculus and periaqueductal gray has been dissected in some detail for mediating fear behaviors elicited by the sight of aerial predators in rodents. Conversely, the ventromedial hypothalamus has cell populations that participate in states of fear and respond to sounds or odors of conspecifics but not to aerial predators. There are also different circuits relating to threat imminence (anxiety, fear, panic). Work in humans with amygdala lesions has dissociated fear of teloreceptive stimuli (snakes, spiders, etc.) from fear of interoceptive stimuli (suffocation). To the extent that different types of threat require different adaptive behaviors, they would constitute different functional states—and this functional specialization should be reflected in the neural circuits. These relatively ‘dedicated’ neural circuits for subtypes of fear are subcortical, whereas cortical involvement is likely to feature ‘mixed selectivity,’ such that the same cortical neurons can encode the multiple actions that might need to be taken in an adaptive response to fear, depending on the circumstances.

MF:  Yes. For example, the taste aversion–disgust–toxin avoidance system (Garcia’s internal milieu defense) is distinct from predatory defense (external milieu). In a nice demonstration of this, Bernstein’s lab showed that within the basolateral amygdala, taste (conditioned stimuli) and toxin (unconditioned stimuli) converge on different sets of neurons than contextual conditioned stimuli and shock unconditioned stimuli. This illustrates the common error of considering the basolateral amygdala as isomorphic with ‘fear’. It is not; it mediates several aversive and appetitive motivational systems that involve different cells and microcircuits within the amygdala. Another concern about purely amygdalocentric views is that not all antipredator defensive modules are equally dependent on the amygdala. For example, I proposed a circa-strike–panic defensive module that depends more on periaqueductal gray than amygdala. This model anticipated the finding that CO2-induced panic occurs in a patient with bilateral loss of the amygdala who otherwise is severely deficient in fear reactions. Interactions between different aversive systems, much like interactions between appetitive and aversive systems, are often inhibitory because the systems serve different functions and one function may need to take precedence over another; for example, inhibition of the pain or recuperative system via analgesic circuitry is part of the fear and defense system. But there is also convergence. In rodents, defense against predators (interspecies) and alpha males (conspecifics) activates very similar brain structures and behaviors, suggesting that there was substantial convergent evolution of these defenses. One reason my essay ( Supplementary Information ) provides for a rich (six-part) definition of fear is to help distinguish fear from other systems.

LFB:  Neuroscience research on motor control has revealed that motor actions are not triggered by simple, dedicated circuits, but are assembled within a flexible neural hierarchy whose motor modules are in the spinal cord. I hypothesize that the same may be true for visceromotor actions. In this view, attempts to build taxonomies of simple defensive circuits are not scientifically generative. The presence of flexible neural hierarchies means that each behavior—such as freezing, fleeing and fighting—is not the result of one specific circuit, but instead may be implemented in multiple ways. In my view, a brain, as a single dynamical system, has the core task of regulating skeletomotor actions as well as visceromotor actions within the body’s internal milieu that supports those actions. This idea suggests that there are degenerate assemblies for each behavior, even in the same situation. Furthermore, the neurons that process sensory inputs (for example, in V1, primary interoceptive cortex) and the neurons that represent affective value all function in the service of actions and carry information about those actions, and therefore are part of the flexible hierarchy for action control.

JL:  Nathaniel Daw and I recently proposed taxonomy of defensive behaviors and their neural underpinnings that might provide an organizational framework for considering some of the diverse levels of analysis implied in the present question. Included are reflexes, fixed reactions, habits, action–outcome behaviors and behaviors controlled by non-conscious and by conscious deliberation. For example, species-typical responses to predatory and social cues can be thought of as fixed reactions that are ‘released’ when different, but to some extent overlapping, subcortical ‘survival circuits’ are engaged. Also relevant are circuits that signal challenges to survival monitor homeostatic imbalances and initiate restorative behaviors. Instrumental, habitual behaviors are fixed but have to be learned and involve corticostriatal circuits, whereas action–outcome instrumental behaviors are learned but flexible and use different corticostriatal circuits. Deliberative instrumental responses are prospective and model-based, and they engage prefrontal circuits; here, non-conscious deliberation about danger allows rapid mental simulation of possible solutions, whereas in slower conscious deliberation, the experience of fear can guide future planning and action.

KR:  For brevity, I will focus on ‘the’ amygdala, which is actually a complex of several cell clusters (nuclei) and is conserved from the most primitive mammals and in most vertebrates. It receives neural projections from essentially all sensory areas of the brain, as well as from memory-processing areas in addition to association and cognitive brain regions. It sends projections back to many of these areas, but most interestingly, also communicates with an array of brainstem and other subcortical areas. Notably, all of these circuits are involved in both defensive and appetitive behaviors, not to mention predatory vs. social behaviors, etc. Recent fascinating work has shown that even within the same subregion of the amygdala, neighboring cells can have opposing functions or more-nuanced functional differences; for example, they may respond preferably to proximal vs. distal threats. Such findings suggest that parallel information pathways, for example different cells encoding ‘fear-on’ vs. ‘fear-off’ information, flow through basolateral and central amygdala nuclei. Furthermore, the same cells that ‘turn off’ a fear response may be responsible for activating positive emotions, such as appetitive or even addictive behavior. Thus, these information channels may be better appreciated as underlying approach vs. avoidance related behaviors and drives. However, it is also possible that as such behaviors are parsed at a neural circuit level, they won’t match well onto our historic terminology of defensive circuits as outlined.

KT:  Synergistic. Everything is connected in the limbic system, if not through direct reciprocal connections, then through neuromodulatory systems. Circuits that mediate different types of fear are likely to converge onto some common pathways, before diverging again for action selection. For example, animals can learn to fear an environmental stimulus through firsthand experience but also through observing others. We know that the basolateral amygdala (BLA) is a critical nucleus for translating sensory information into motivational significance for associations learned through direct experience and that observational fear learning requires both the BLA and the anterior cingulate cortex. The anterior cingulate cortex’s role is to interpret the demonstrator’s distress and send this signal to the BLA, where associative learning takes place.

Q4: How does (or can) your perspective fit with the others’ perspectives?

RA:  My functional emphasis is probably closest to the views of Mobbs and Fanselow. I particularly like threat imminence theory, which is of course a functional theory. My view of fear as a state that is distinct from the conscious experience of fear seems aligned with LeDoux’s view with respect to that emphasis. This is a bit ironic, since I disagree with LeDoux’ conclusions (he redefines ‘fear’ to mean ‘the conscious experience of fear’), but I think he has written most clearly about the distinction, which is important. I would actually reinterpret his view as being about how we recognize that an organism is in a state of fear. We recognize this state in ourselves by having a conscious experience of fear; we recognize it in other people from their verbal reports or behavior; and we recognize it in animals from their behavior. If we want to be consistent, we should apply whatever meaning of ‘fear’ to both other humans and to animals, since the evidence is of the same type. Ressler’s and Tye’s views stay closer to the neurobiology, and I certainly share the view that a lot of questions about fear are empirical matters, mostly still needing resolution. There is no question that the science of fear, even in the absence of any agreement on conceptual or theoretical issues, will make progress and indeed will inform the conceptual and theoretical issues. I would agree that it’s productive to just get on with the neuroscience even without agreement about the philosophical issues; but I also think we need to continue to take stock and discuss the philosophical issues to get a sense of where we’re heading. Feldman Barrett’s view both shares some strong agreement with mine and is completely opposed. I share her emphasis on the context-dependency of emotions and, in particular, her attack on the notion that we can ‘read out’ emotions from facial expressions (indeed, we just co-authored a paper on this). But I disagree with her notion that there are no objective criteria to decide whether an animal or person is in an emotion state or in a particular type of emotion state.

MF:  Like Adolphs’ approach, my approach emphasizing evolutionary demands is a take on functionalism; indeed, my first paper on predatory imminence was titled, “A functional behavioristic approach to aversively motivated behavior.” I resonate completely with Adolphs’ sentiment that “emotions are states of an organism that are defined by what they do.” I note that both Adolphs and LeDoux are critical of behavioristic approaches, but their criticism is leveled at radical behaviorism. My behaviorism is a product of Tolman’s cognitive behaviorism that emphasized purpose in behavior, although Tolman was more focused on immediate or proximal function (how do I get food here) as opposed to ultimate function (why do I seek food). Indeed, fear-related actions were phylogenetically programmed because they had a high probability of success over many generations, but the actions may be maladaptive in an immediate situation. This also means that any individual instance of these programmed behaviors may not be effective in the current situation. That is why any particular instance of fear behavior may seem, and actually be, irrational in the present moment. My approach appears to be in direct contradiction with both Feldman Barrett and LeDoux’s ideas that fear is entirely a higher-order conscious construction. The adaptive function of consciousness is typically viewed as providing flexibility and supporting deliberative, proximally rational, behavior. I think this stands at odds with the necessary features of life in the face of threat. Reactions have to be immediate; any time spent in deliberation increases the likelihood of death. Therefore, these fear reactions are phylogenetically programmed responses. When faced with a predator, there is no time to acquire behaviors based on trial and error and no time for novel planning. The contrast with Tolman is again instructive. Tolman emphasized variable means to fixed ends; if you have a cognitive map that reveals the location of food, the animal may use many different ways of getting to that food. The idea is quite similar to Feldman Barrett’s description of one-to-many mapping in motor systems. But Tolman’s theory was based on empirical work with a food reinforcer, where considerable flexibility is not only tolerated but beneficial: you don’t die if you miss one meal, and trying out something new may lead to a richer patch or a nutrient unavailable in the preceding meal. The demands of defense are entirely different. Hence, the rodent’s most studied food-getting response, lever pressing, is virtually impossible to investigate in the frightened rat.

LFB:  Empirically, the scientific findings constitute a small subset of what remains to be discovered about the neurobiological basis of fear. My scientific approach differs substantially in its guiding ontological commitments than those that guide current research on the nature of fear.

JL:  Each of the participants has laid out a cogent argument for their position. I enjoyed reading the essays, and I learned something new about what each author thinks. My ideas about the conscious experience of fear overlaps with Barrett's, as we both view fear as a cognitively assembled state that is based on mental models and conceptualizations of situations. For me, the other factors or ingredients that contribute to fear, such as brain arousal and feedback from body responses, modulate but do not determine the quality of the experience. On the other hand, my ideas about the role of brain areas such as the amygdala in detecting threats and initiating body reactions, and on the role of resulting motivational states that guide instrumental actions, are largely compatible with the views of the other contributors. Much of what we disagree about is semantic—in the presence of a threat, is fear the experience itself or all of the various consequences triggered by the threat? But to say the differences are semantic does not mean they are unimportant. Words are powerful. They underlie our conceptions and shape the implications of our theoretical points of view, and they influence what others conclude about our research. We should do our best to eliminate ambiguity and confusion in our scientific word choice. Our lexicon provides us ways to do this, and we should make use of the subtlety of our language when we use it scientifically. An easy way to start is to avoid using mental state terms to describe behaviors that are not based on mental states. In humans we can make these distinctions, and should then should certainly avoid using mental state terms to describe behavior in animals when in humans similar responses are not controlled by subjectively experienced mental states. I believe that words like threatening stimuli, defensive responses and defensive survival circuit characterize stimulus-response relations in animals better than fear stimuli, fear circuits and fear responses.

KR:  In most ways, I agree with the other perspectives, in that I feel everyone is stating similar aspects of a broader shared understanding, but with nuanced differences. I think my perspective is most focused on the observation that in human neuropsychiatry research, the science of aversive behavior and fear-related disorders, along perhaps with appetitive behavior and addiction, is the most mature for clinical translation. Specifically, I agree with Adolphs’ idea that a “functionalist view of emotions like fear requires an interdisciplinary approach.” I agree with Fanselow’s defining characteristics of fear—a formalistic approach which I believe has much utility, in particular with regard to the differential experiential states that distinguish different functional modes between anxiety, fear and panic. I agree with Barrett that the features of fear “include some set of physical changes (autonomic nervous system changes, chemical changes, actions, etc.) and sensations that become perceptions of the surrounding world and the body.” I agree with LeDoux that “fear is a conscious experience in which you come to believe that you are about to be harmed” and with Tye on the importance of a conceptual model consisting of “three psychological processes that determine importance (or salience), valence and action, respectively.” While I also agree with many of the nuanced, philosophical, psychological, behavioral and neuroscience-based definitions, I don’t want to lose sight of how much progress has been made and how powerful the concept of ‘fear’ is to translational neuropsychiatry.

Q5: Do current behavioral assays for the study of fear restrict our ability to improve our understanding of fear?

RA:  The contemporary assays are seriously flawed in that they compare apples and oranges between studies in animals and studies in humans. There are quite a number of behavioral assays for fear in animals, essentially none of which are used in studies in human studies, which instead typically use verbal reports as the ground truth. Since it’s impossible to use verbal reports in animals, the solution seems in principle straightforward: we need to adapt the behavioral batteries from animal studies to studies in humans. Only a few studies have attempted this. An additional challenge of course is ecological validity. Mobbs’ study of moving a tarantula closer and closer to your foot while you are in the scanner is a rare but classic success in this direction. The problem also extends to the stimuli used. There are many studies that present human subjects with facial expressions of emotions or that have them read short vignettes. Those studies may show something about social perception or people’s semantic knowledge about the concept of fear, but they do not assess the actual state of fear. I am quite concerned about the inadequacy of most experimental protocols to study human fear, which have disconnected the study of fear in humans from the study of fear in animals. Human studies need more ecologically valid stimuli and better behavioral assays, in particular ones that do not rely on verbal report and that can be argued to have some homology to the behavioral assays used in animal studies.

MF:  Pavlovian fear conditioning is a natural component of how prey recognize predators and it works great in the lab. But its success comes with dangers. One of these dangers is that it has led to disproportionate emphasis on one module in the threat continuum (post-encounter–fear) and our knowledge of the other components (circa-strike–panic and pre-encounter–anxiety) lags behind. Perhaps an even greater danger is the tendency to treat procedure as isomorphic with process. Procedurally, fear conditioning is defined as pairing a neutral stimulus with an aversive one, but this procedure will not invariably condition a fear state because not all aversive stimuli support engagement of the antipredator defensive system. A toxin is clearly an aversive stimulus, but pairing a neutral flavor with a toxin leads to palatability shifts that reduce consumption and not an antipredator defense. Likewise, some shocks are sufficiently novel and powerful to condition fear but others are not; a mild shock may well be annoying but insufficient to condition fear. A rat’s behavior is more flexible with a very weak shock, but that flexibility is progressively lost as shock intensity increases. I take this loss of behavioral flexibility as diagnostic of a fear state. Therefore, one must be cautious when choosing shock intensity or letting subjects choose shock intensity. Additionally, other commonly used outcomes in human fear studies, such as loss of money, are unlikely to tap into the neural systems that support antipredator defense.

LFB:  Contemporary paradigms, guided by the notion of simple, dedicated neural circuits for fear arranged in a single taxonomy, restrict the study of fear in several important ways. First, instances of fear are typically studied in laboratory settings that differ strongly from the ethological contexts in which they naturally emerge. All potential actions have an energy cost, and an animal’s brain weighs these against potential rewards and revenues in a particular context. Economic choices about actions, therefore, are necessarily influenced by a number of situation-specific considerations about an animal’s state and the state of the environment, most of which are held constant in the typical laboratory experiment. These factors not only influence which defensive action is executed (as suggested by some taxonomies of defensive behaviors), but also how any given action is implemented. Ignoring these factors make the neural causes of defensive actions seem more atomistic than they actually are, and as a consequence, most contemporary paradigms are insufficiently holistic (see my answer to Question 2). Second, contemporary paradigms confound things that should be kept separate. For example, it’s important to distinguish affect and emotion. Affective features such as valence and arousal are best thought of as low-dimensional summaries of higher-dimensional interoceptions that result from allostasis; valence and/or arousal might be intense during episodes of emotion but are not specific to those episodes. Because allostasis and interoception are continually ongoing in an animal’s life, valence and arousal are mental features that may describe every waking moment of that life. For this statement to make sense when comparing human and non-human animals, it is necessary to distinguish a brain’s capacity for consciousness (an experience) and its capacity for awareness (the ability to report or reflect on an experience); relatedly, it is important to distinguish perceiving the sensory features of the immediate context in a particular way from being aware of that perception (for example, an awareness of perceiving threat) and from the awareness of being frightened. It’s also important not to confound a threatening stimulus with the context in which the threat emerges, as often occurs in taxonomies of fear; brains don’t perceive stimuli, they perceive sensory arrays, i.e., ‘stimuli’ in context. And perhaps most importantly, one should not confuse observation and inference. Scientists measure things like skeletomotor actions (such as freezing) and the visceromotor actions that support those skeletomotor actions (such as changes in heart rate), which they might refer to as ‘fear’; correspondingly, they measure the change in neural firing that supports those actions, which they might refer to as ‘fear circuitry’. This approach confounds what is observed (for example, freezing, changes in heart rate) with their inferred cause (for example, fear). The science of fear would be more productive and more generative if the two were not routinely confused. When a scientist observes actions and infers an instance of fear, the scientist is engaging in emotion perception. Fear is always a perception—an inference—whether on the part of a scientist observing an animal’s actions, a human observing another human’s actions, or an animal making sense of its sensory surroundings as part of action control. No changes in the autonomic nervous system or skeletomotor actions are, in and of themselves, meaningful as fear. A brain makes them meaningful as fear with inferences (which can also be described as prediction signals or ad hoc concepts). An animal’s brain—human or otherwise—makes these inferences without awareness of doing so. From this perspective, understanding the neurobiological basis of inference is part of understanding the neurobiology of fear.

JL:  A staple of research on fear has, of course, been the ‘fear’ conditioning paradigm. It has generated a large amount of useful information about how the brain detects and responds to danger. It can also be used to probe human participants about conscious experiences. But in studies of non-human animals, for reasons discussed in detail elsewhere, researchers can only measure behavioral and physiological responses. Because similar responses, including amygdala activation, can be elicited in humans with subliminal stimuli that are not consciously perceived and that do not engender reports of fearful feelings, the experience of fear would not seem to be driving the responses. For this reason, the amygdala circuit might be better thought of as a threat circuit or defense circuit than a fear circuit. Thus, the limits lie not in our paradigms; rather, the paradigm exposes the limits of what can be learned from animals versus humans when using these paradigms. Our understanding of fear is, however, limited by other things. One is the fact that truly frightening and traumatizing situations, for ethical reasons, cannot be used in laboratory studies of fear; milder proxies only give us hints, as brain responses do not scale linearly with stimulus intensity. Another is conceptual complacency and loose use of language. As noted above, popular views of fear and fear conditioning are tethered to Mower and Miller’s conceptualization dating back to the 1940s. The term ‘fear conditioning’ implies that the task reveals how fear arises. If one thinks of fear as a conscious experience, as I do, fear conditioning (or what I call ‘threat conditioning’) can in principle be used in animal studies to help understand processes that contribute indirectly to fear; but it cannot reveal the mechanisms underlying human fearful experiences, which can only be studied in humans (I do not deny animal consciousness as a natural phenomenon but question whether we can study this scientifically). I believe that the use of mental-state words like ‘fear’ to characterize behavioral control systems inevitably creates confusion and leads to misplaced expectations about what animal research can and cannot tell us. Thus, if someone uses the word ‘fear’, then he or she should clarify the intended meaning of ‘fear’ each time the term is used (for example, adding adjectives such as ‘conscious’ or ‘non-conscious’ or ‘explicit’ or ‘implicit’) to avoid confusion. Separating conscious ‘fear’ from non-conscious ‘threat processing’ from the start would avoid such confusion.

KR:  The most common current approaches to study fear in preclinical model systems are based upon Pavlovian fear conditioning models—examining the different memory-related constructs of acquisition, expression, extinction, etc. of a fear memory—and use behavioral metrics of freezing, avoidance and startle. Similarly, in most human models, laboratories have sought to perform controlled experiments but generally using self-report or physiological outcome measures (for example, electrodermal skin response, heart rate or acoustic startle). A limitation to most translational studies is that the human and model-system studies generally do not use the same paradigms and same outcome metrics. Furthermore, using well-controlled learning paradigms makes it harder to explicitly define pathways and agreed-upon circuits related to innate or unconditioned fear cues, processes and behaviors, particularly in animal model systems. Generally, the more controlled and reductionist the experimental paradigm, the harder it is to observe and quantify natural threat response patterns and their underlying biology.

KT:  I think having a very stereotyped behavioral paradigm for Pavlovian fear conditioning has facilitated reproducibility and a deeper dive into the anatomy and mechanism (for pairing pure tones to co-terminating foot shock in rodents). However, there are many other types of fear that have been understudied or not yet studied at all, leaving us with more depth and less breadth in our understanding of fear. At this point, the vast majority of publications on ‘fear’ refer to a very specific paradigm that is only a tiny subset of the neural mechanisms of this emotional state.

Q6: Can animal models inform us about human models of fear (and vice versa)?

RA:  I would say studies in animals are essential to understanding fear, since they allow much better measurements and manipulations than is the case in humans—neither are ‘models’ of anything. The animal studies investigate animal fear; the human studies investigate human fear. No doubt there will be both similarities and differences between any different species, and some animals will have functionally defined fear states that are completely absent in others (animals that don’t live in an environment with aerial predators will not have the circuit involving the superior colliculus that processes that type of threat in mice). The reason I actually favor animal studies over human studies is that they can simplify what we are looking for. As I noted earlier, studies in humans typically mix the study of fear with the study of the concept of fear, the conscious experience of fear, or the verbal report of fear. A mouse certainly doesn’t have the verbal report, is unlikely to have the concept, and we don’t know how to measure its conscious experience—when confronted with a threat, it is just in a functionally specified state of fear. It is also much easier to induce ecologically valid emotions in animals (they don’t know they are in an experiment), and it is much more difficult for animals to volitionally regulate their emotions. For all these reasons, studying genuine, intense emotions in animals is far easier than studying them in humans and should be the place where neuroscientists start.

MF:  Absolutely and they have. Wolpe’s development of exposure-type therapy was drawn from animal work by Pavlov and Hull and still stands as the signature treatment for anxiety disorders. Mobbs has provided a sophisticated expansion of predatory imminence theory that allows it to capture many of the unique features of human emotion.

LFB:  Animal models can inform us about human instances of fear, but currently there are several obstacles. First, most animal studies are performed in just a few model species and fail to consider the similarities and differences in brain-based and niche-based features of different species and as model systems for neurotypical human brain development and function. The computational role of most major brain parts remains conserved across the vertebrate lineage, and all brains can be described as automatically and effortlessly forming inferences (i.e., ad hoc concepts) to categorize anticipated sensory inputs and guide action. But species may differ in the type of concepts that a brain can construct, due to general brain-scaling functions and the information available in an animal’s niche. For example, the human brain has expanded association cortices compared to other primates, enabling increased information compression and dimensionality reduction; this suggests that human brains may be able to create multimodal summaries characterized by more abstractio. This hypothesis in no way diminishes the importance of survival-related behaviors in human emotion, nor does it invalidate the importance of studying survival-related behaviors in animal models for the purposes of understanding the biology of human emotion. It does suggest, however, that solving the puzzle of human emotion—and human evolution more generally—may require a science of ‘emotion ecology’ that attempts to understand species-general and species-specific processes. Moreover, experimental animals are typically reared in impoverished laboratory settings with fewer opportunities to encounter the range of sensorimotor challenges than are typical in natural ethological contexts; this likely impacts brain wiring during development, prompting the question of whether lab animals are even ‘neurotypical’.

JL:  The answer to this question is obviously yes, but the details depend on the animal in question and what one means by fear. Invertebrates can potentially inform us about cellular and molecular mechanisms of threat learning in mammals, including humans. Non-primate mammals can potentially inform us about circuits that detect threats and control various responses (for example, reactions, habits, instrumental actions). Non-human primates can potentially inform us about cortical circuits that underlie deliberative cognition. But in each case it is important to verify, to the extent possible, the relevance of the findings to humans by doing studies that approximate the animal studies in humans, albeit with less neurobiological detail. Human research is also necessary to study the conscious experience of fear and other emotions. This is true for at least two reasons. First, methodological barriers limit the assessment of consciousness in non-human animals. We can, as Jeffrey Grey put it, only creep up on consciousness using behavioral proxies in non-humans. Flawed though it is, verbal report is a powerful tool in humans. We can typically respond verbally or non-verbally to information which we are conscious of, but can only respond non-verbally to information for which we lack awareness; with only non-verbal responses, it is difficult to distinguish between conscious and non-conscious processing in other animals. Second, even if we assume that some non-verbal tests reveal aspects of consciousness in non-human animals, the nature of consciousness is likely to be quite different given the human brain's unique capacities for language, hierarchical cognition, conceptualization, prospective cognition and self-reflection, which I believe all contribute to fear and other emotional experiences.

KR:  While it is clear that few, if any, animal models fully represent the complexity of human neuropsychiatric disorders, there is tremendous evidence for conservation across species—from mouse to human—for basic behaviors, including for many of the defensive threat responses and their underlying circuits. Data robustly suggest that appetitive and aversive behaviors, respectively, are underlying phenomena for the syndromes of addiction and fear-related disorders such as phobia, anxiety, and post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). Furthermore, the subcortical amygdala, bed nucleus of the stria terminalis (BNST), striatal, hippocampal and brainstem circuits, and to some extent aspects of cortical regulatory areas, are highly conserved in form and function across mammals. Decades of work has established a clear circuitry that has largely held up in human imaging and physiology studies and in rodent studies using modern tools such as optogenetics, chemogenetics, calcium and electrophysiology tools. While much more needs to be established, powerful approaches such as single-cell RNA-sequencing across regions and species, large-scale genetic tools combined with transcriptomics, and digital phenotyping across species are enabling truly novel and powerful translational approaches that do not model disorders per se, but instead model their component parts, from molecules to circuits to aspects of behavioral syntax that underlie the defensive ‘threat’ to ‘fear’ continuum.

KT:  New technologies and methods can enhance our understanding of fear as they can advance our understanding of brain circuitry and function in general. Fear conditioning is often a first proof-of-principle behavioral paradigm used to validate new technologies because it is so robust and reproducible.

Q7: How can new technologies and methods enhance our understanding of fear?

RA:  Much attention has been paid to increasing the precision of measurements and manipulations of the brain, but I think we need to improve the validity of stimuli and measurements of behavior. Only a few studies have used high-dimensional, multivariate measures of behavior. For instance, one can measure the change in the body surface over tens of thousands of little chromatophores that cuttlefish use to camouflage themselves, a measure that has been claimed to give us a direct readout of the animal’s perceptual state. Rich measures in humans would also seem achievable: we need to measure in detail people’s movements in 3D space, their whole-body blood flow and so forth. At the stimulus end, the best stimulus is the real world, and studies in an animal’s natural environment or in a person’s everyday life would help to provide validity to studies in the lab. Virtual reality could probably help here. Of course, behavior isn’t everything (fear doesn’t just function to cause behavior); interactions with other cognitive processes are important to quantify as well. In the ideal case we would probe not only how behavior changes over time when an ecologically valid threat stimulus is presented, but also how this affects memory, attention, perception and decision-making.


Credit: Dr. Chris Henstridge Getty Images

MF:  Particularly useful is our ability to map large cellular networks that participate in different situations and behaviors. These have largely been achieved using immediate early gene imaging techniques such as catFISH. Above, I described Bernstein’s research that used this methodology to show that taste aversion and fear conditioning activate largely independent amygdala networks, helping us distinguish two aversive motivational systems. New implantable microscopes also hold considerable promise in advancing our understanding. But our conceptual understanding of phenomena cannot be sacrificed to these technical achievements; the two must advance hand-in-hand.

LFB:  New technologies and methods can enhance our understanding of fear by providing the capacity to observe animals in a wider variety of highly variable ethological contexts using higher-dimensional measurement procedures with improved temporal and spatial specificity. The ability to measure and model naturalistic contextual variation is crucial, particularly for genetic studies; most genetic variation related to individual differences that predispose an animal to disease sits in non-coding regions of the genome, which are strongly influenced by context.

JL:  The new methods available today are revolutionizing brain research. But sometimes the methods seem to take precedence over the questions. New methods can only help us if we have adequately conceptualized the problems. Complications from poorly designed studies are relatively easily corrected—just do a better experiment. Conceptual problems are harder to change. Ideas become dogma, and dogma typically goes unquestioned; new methods can’t fix that. It’s good that in this exercise we are taking a step back to assess where we are, conceptually, relative to where we need to be.

KR:  An array of fantastic new molecular tools, from optogenetics to chemogenetics to in vivo dynamic imaging, has allowed a functional dissection of cells, molecules and pathways that underscore threat processing and inhibition. Understanding these processes will provide novel and robust insights into control of specific kinds of emotional responses, in particular fear and threat. From a translational perspective, such a cellular level of precision of behavioral control leads to remarkable possibilities. Through single-cell RNA-sequencing, we can now assess whether cell types and microcircuits are conserved from mouse to human. Furthermore, we can ask whether these conserved pathways also share molecular targets, so that one could apply data analytics and bioinformatics toward understanding combinations of drugs that might specifically inhibit conserved fear circuits or enhance extinction circuits. For example, even in humans, could we use brain stimulation techniques or even gene therapy to target fear circuits in reliable, therapeutic ways?

Concluding remarks

After this discussion, can we agree on a definition of fear?

RA:  I think we want to be careful to leave room open for revision and discovery, rather than rigidly ‘defining’ fear. Perhaps we could agree on these points: (i) fear involves particular regions of the brain, especially clearly subcortical ones. We can measure it from, and induce it by manipulating, particular neural circuits (for example, the amygdala) and not others (for example, the cerebellum). Whether these circuits are specific to fear is a further empirical matter. We could come up with some initial inventory of how strong the evidence is for the participation of particular brain structures in fear. (ii) There are subtypes, varieties or dimensions of fear. I would advocate, in the first instance, for differentiating it based on functional criteria. We could come up with lists here, too. (iii) The state of fear, the conscious experience of fear, the concept of what ‘fear’ means and the meaning of the word ‘fear’ are all different things (the latter two can only be studied in humans). If you give people words or stories to rate, you are testing the last two. It would be useful to come up with taxonomy or a glossary for this.

MF : Several of the approaches (Aldolphs, Ressler, Tye and Fanselow) seem to take evolutionary concerns and commonalities between fear expression as central. Importantly, these approaches recognize that something can be learned from all measures of fear. LeDoux and Feldman Barrett stand apart. In my opinion, their approaches suffer from the human tendency to glorify verbal report over all other measures. So, the hurdle is to agree to treat verbal report as informative, but not exclusively so. LeDoux’s description of the circuitry supporting conscious reporting of fear recognizes that there is significant input from the amygdala and other components of the antipredator system. I believe this is also true of Feldman Barrett’s description, although she does not discuss explicit circuitry. The circuitry that gives rise to any individual fear response will have two components. One component arises from the core defensive circuit, and this will be similar for all fear responses. But there will also be a second component providing specific information, and the processing necessary, for execution of the particular response. This is just as true of freezing as verbal report. Each response will have its own unique subcircuit, part of which will belong to an essential circuitry common to all fear responses. Each response reflects both fear and other contextual information. If we recognize this, then we may be close to consensus. Even something seemingly simple as freezing is a complex construction. The firing of basolateral amygdala neurons that initiates freezing is brief and transient and needs to be converted elsewhere into the firing patterns necessary to maintain a sustained motor response. The motor pattern we call freezing varies considerably in posture; the freezing rat can be crouching on the ground or rearing up and leaning on a wall. This is remarkably similar to Feldman Barrett’s description of ‘many to one’ response mapping where the ‘intention’ to freeze is implemented by different motor plans. Freezing does not occur in random places: animals preferentially freeze near walls, in corners and in dark locations. Thus, the freezing subcircuit processes visual contextual information that is quite separate from the sensory stimuli that signal danger. Past experiences will also influence current action. These multiple streams of information must coalesce in a manner that supports each instance of freezing. Thus, even freezing is, in Feldman Barrett’s words, “highly context-dependent and variable.” Maybe we are not so far apart after all.

LFB : I am optimistic and hopeful that scientists can reach agreement on defining fear, but it will require that we reconsider some of our ontological commitments and the philosophical assumptions that ground our empirical inquiry. Several of the debates within the science of fear (and the science of emotion, more generally) are philosophical rather than scientific and so are unlikely to be resolved with experiments or data. Still, discussions like these are worth having, because commitments and assumptions are conceptual tools that influence (and constrain) the process and products of scientific inquiry.

JL:  The fundamental issue we are discussing is the role of subjective experience in the science of emotion. Is it one of many aspects of emotion, or is it what emotion is all about? This is a perennial issue in emotion theory. The reason we are discussing this as if it was a novel topic here is because much contemporary research on the brain mechanisms of fear has involved fear conditioning, which has largely been isolated from mainstream emotion theory. My PhD dissertation in the late 1970s included studies of emotional consciousness in split-brain patients and introduced me to the cognitive theory of emotion. Ever since, I have viewed emotions as cognitively assembled states and tried to integrate cognitive thinking about emotion into the ‘fear’ conditioning (or what I call ‘threat conditioning’) field. But it has been an uphill battle. For example, sometime in the late 1980s, one of my colleagues from the behaviorist tradition asked me, “why do you talk about fear conditioning in terms of emotion?” These days, for better or worse, emotion talk is fairly common in the animal aversive conditioning field. But the conception of emotion is often still heavily influenced by the Miller–Mowrer behaviorist ‘fear theory’ from the 1940s, which treated conditioned ‘fear’ as the underlying factor in avoidance. While some from the behaviorist tradition, especially in the tradition of Tolman, viewed fear in animals as an intervening varaiable, a hypothetical ‘central state’ (for example, a hypothetical nonsubjective psychologicial or physiological state) that might connect stimuli with behavior, others viewed it as a subjective conscious experience; however, most did not take a stand either way, which has engendered much confusion. Research on the brain mechanisms of fear in humans has also often used the term ‘fear’ in ways that conflate behavioral and physiological responses with subjective experiences, further adding to the confusing state of affairs in which now find ourselves. As I noted above, some of the disagreements among the participants in this discussion are mostly semantic. But, also as noted, semantics are crucial to our conceptions and assumptions. It’s a good thing that different ideas are being expressed. Fear has too long been talked about in ways that imply we all mean the same thing. Now that different conceptions are being openly discussed, it would, as I suggested above, be useful for researchers to be more rigorous and vigilant in defining what each means by ‘fear’ each and every time the term is used, so that others will understand what is being referred to in a given instance. The less cumbersome alternative, which I prefer, is simply to confine fear to fear itself. As the social psychologist Matthew Lieberman recently argued, “emotion is emotional experience”. More generally, mental state terms like fear should be used to refer to mental states and not to behavioral or physiological control circuits.

KR:  I believe that we can agree on a definition. I think most everyone already states some of the shared understanding of a subset of the conscious awareness components in humans, as well as observable physiological and behavioral components in humans and model systems. I think that separating the salience, valence and action (or perhaps feeling, perception and behavior) descriptions will help with some of the semantics. Additionally, I think that focusing on pragmatism over theoretical will help with efficiency toward a workable definition.

In your view, what are the clinical implications of a clear definition of fear?

RA:  The clinical implications are huge. Probably the best evidence for this is the paper by LeDoux and Pine, and subsequent rebuttals by Fanselow. LeDoux and Pine argue that the effects of anxiolytic drugs studied in rodents do not inform about the conscious experience of fear and that this is why anxiolytic drugs don’t work well for alleviating fear in humans: they are aiming at the wrong target. For instance, an antidepressant that makes depressed people really awake and active and gets them out of bed in the morning would not be helpful if they still feel depressed. This is just one example, but it shows how important it is to figure out what we are studying when we study fear in animals and in humans and when we measure or manipulate its neural components.

MF:  The scientific definition of fear must help us understand the clinical manifestations of fear. Let’s start with what I see as the two big questions. First, why are anxiety disorders so prevalent? Elsewhere I’ve described this as a natural and predicted consequence of the costs and benefits of hits vs. misses when assessing the presence of threat. Second, why are anxiety disorders so detrimental? Fear, anxiety and panic in the absence of actual danger are not beneficial, so why doesn’t the realization of this fact make anxiety disorders disappear? I believe this is a consequence of engaging a system whose strategies are determined by contingencies that operated over phylogeny rather than ontogeny. I also come back to my point that if consciousness evolved to allow flexible and rational decision making, the lack of flexibility and rational action that characterizes anxiety disorders suggests that conscious contributions are limited. I’m not saying that there is no contribution, but we must temper our conclusions with the facts of the clinical situation.

LFB:  One goal of understanding the neurobiological basis of fear is to aid the treatment and prevention of mood-related symptoms in both mental and physical disorders. This goal will be accomplished only when we consider the mechanisms and features of fear in the context of what the broader range of evidence actually suggests about the evolution and development of the nervous system. An evo-devo approach requires considering what the broader range of evidence actually suggests about features of the human nervous system that are deeply evolutionarily conserved vs. features that emerge during human vs non-human brain development. In addition, scientists should understand that disorders which strongly implicate fear and/or anxiety, such as PTSD, are not specific ‘fear’ disorders; this has implications for how these disorders are understood, treated and prevented.

JL:  In the face of a sudden danger, we typically consciously experience fear and also respond behaviorally and physiologically. Because the experience and the responses often occur simultaneously, we have the sense that they are entwined in the brain and thus are all consequences of a fear module. This is a common and popular view of fear, and it has led to search for medications and behavioral treatments that will relieve subjective distress in patients suffering from fear or anxiety disorders. Since the behavioral and subjective responses are both assumed to be products of a fear module, it is also assumed that treatments that alter behavior in animals will alter fear and anxiety in people. Few would claim that this effort has been a rousing success. Small but statistically significant differences relative to placebo controls are found in some studies, but for any one individual the chances of successful treatment are much lower than desirable. And even when successful, side effects pose other problems. But more pertinent to our concern here is why these treatments help, when they do. Is it because the treatment directly changes the content of the subjective experience, or because it indirectly affects the experience (for example, by reducing brain arousal, feedback from body responses), or because it affects cognitive processes that contribute to the experience (episodic and semantic memory; hierarchical deliberation, working memory, self-awareness), or all of the above? For the patient it probably doesn’t matter how a treatment works, but for the purpose of finding new and better medications, knowing the underlying mechanism of action is crucial. And to understand this we need a conceptualization of not just how the brain controls behavioral and physiological responses elicited by threats, but also how the threat engenders the conscious experience of fear—something that can only be explored in humans. After many decades of being marginalized as ‘just another measure of fear’, there is renewed interest in consciousness (including emotional consciousness) in psychology, neuroscience and the various psychotherapeutic communities—not simply because subjective experience is an interesting research topic, but also because it plays a central role in our lives and must be a central part of therapy.

KR:  Disorders of fear processing (and related panic and anxiety), from panic disorder, social anxiety and phobia to PTSD, are among the most common of psychiatric maladies, affecting hundreds of millions of people worldwide. Combined, they are also among the highest in terms of morbidity, loss of work, comorbid psychiatric and medical disorders, and mortality from suicide. Despite these unfortunate statistics, we understand these disorders moderately well and have reasonable treatments. These disorders all share the core emotion of fear and threat-related symptoms. The diagnosis of a panic attack, shared among all of these disorders, includes racing heartbeat, sweats, chest pains, breathing difficulties, feelings of loss of control and a sense of terror, fear, impending doom and death—basically the ‘fear reflex’ run amok! The reflexes and symptoms that are ‘normal’ in a threatening situation are experienced by those with anxiety disorders all the time—as if they can’t ‘turn off’ the fear switch. Furthermore, the most well-supported, empirically validated treatments for these disorders rely on repeated exposure, now understood as the process of ‘fear extinction’. Advances in our understanding of mechanisms of fear and threat-processing, its underlying neural circuitry and molecular biology, and improved methods of fear inhibition and extinction, will contribute to advancing treatment and prevention for these devastating disorders.

What is an important gap that future research (and funding) should try to fill?

RA:  Integrative, cross-species research. Right now, research on fear (and other emotions) is like the blind men and the elephant. Each lab studies either humans or a single animal model, and each study focuses on a narrow aspect of fear. We need to figure out how to put all this together. I’m not suggesting a giant project where all manner of species and humans are studied, but we should produce standardized sets of experimental protocols that the scientific community can use—in particular, these protocols and their measures have to cut across species to some extent. Right now, research on fear in animals and in humans is really disconnected, and that has to change if we are to make progress. We need uniform criteria for evaluating papers and grants and for building a cumulative science of fear. Needless to say, the by-now-common criteria of reproducibility and data sharing should apply also.

MF:  Current technical developments in neuroscience are both important and breathtaking, but where we fall short is conceptual development and advancing formal theories of behavior. Without conceptual development, the data being collected with those tools can be, and often is, profoundly misinterpreted. While some of the contributors to this discussion bemoan the influence of behaviorism, I feel that a far more problematic trend is the intuitive, and often anthropomorphic, approach to behavior that characterizes much of the most technically advanced neuroscience going on now. This caution was a major motivator for the initial development of behaviorism. Again, I note that the negative comments regarding behaviorism above were directed at an outdated form of behaviorism that learning theorists discarded decades ago, and these comments can therefore be considered strawman arguments. Behavior is of paramount importance, not only because it allows objective observation, but also because it is where the organism connects with selection pressure. Careful observation of emotionally charged animals shows that behavior is often irrational and our intuitions about how to interpret it are likely to fail. I call ‘predatory imminence theory’ a functional behavioristic approach because its ideas flow from concerns about both evolution and behavioral topography.

LFB:  Every behavior is the result of an economic decision about an animal’s global energy budget and involves estimating expenditures and deposits over various temporal windows that are relevant to the niche of the animal, taking into account the animal’s current physiological condition. If fear is to be understood in an evolutionary and developmental context, then it must be studied in the reality of those economic decisions as they emerge in an animal’s ethological context. More attention must be paid to basic metabolism and energy regulation, including the cellular respiration of neurons and glial cells. A predictive processing approach, rather than a stimulus–response approach, must also be considered. And a greater emphasis on variation and degeneracy, at all levels of analysis, as well as neural reuse, must be considered.

JL:  My view is that the biggest impediments to progress are our conceptions and the language we use to characterize psychological constructs. My personal preference is that mental-state terms, such as fear, should be avoided when discussing relatively primitive processes that control behavior; mental state words should only be used when specifically referring to mental states, such as the conscious experience of fear.

KR:  I agree with Tye that “given its critical importance in survival and its authoritarian command over the rest of the brain, fear should be one of the most extensively studied topics in neuroscience, though it trails behind investigation of sensory and motor processes due to its subjective nature.” I feel that it is among the ‘lowest hanging’ fruit in behavioral and translational neuroscience, and that an explanatory science—from molecules to cells to circuits to behavior—will provide a transformative example for other areas of neuroscience and neuropsychiatry. I think current gaps include many of the questions raised in this discussion, such as how are valence, salience, perception and action separated at a neural circuit level. Are there critical differences between predatory vs. social survival circuits and between reactive vs. cognitive fears? How discrete, at a cellular circuit and microcircuit level, are the different components and behaviors underlying threat processing? Finally, from a translational perspective, how are the molecules, cells and circuits conserved in humans—which ones constitute convergent evolution of similar behaviors with distinct mechanisms vs. which represent truly conserved mechanisms that are essentially the same in rodents and humans?

KT:  The field would benefit greatly from additional paradigms that are distinct yet stereotyped to facilitate the same critical mass of research surrounding it that Pavlovian fear conditioning has undergone to really be able to make comparisons.

Substantial progress has been made in our understanding of the neural circuits involved in fear. This has been a cross-species endeavor, yet—as debated here—there are disparities on how to investigate and define fear. We hope that the debate presented here, which represents the views of a subset of outstanding researchers in the field, will invigorate the community to unify on clear definitions of fear (and its subtypes) and to show the courage to pursue new behavioral assays that can better differentiate between fear circuits (or concepts) involved in perception, feeling and action. The implications will be far-reaching, as a lack of coherence on what neural systems are involved in fear and fear learning will hinder scientific progress, including the study of human affective disorders such as PTSD, anxiety and panic disorder. That is, how we define fear determines how we investigate this emotion.

This article is reproduced with permission and was  first published  on July 22, 2019.

  • Member Login
  • Library Patron Login



Search: Title Author Article Search String:

Why do we say "The only thing we have to fear is fear itself"?

Well-known expressions, the only thing we have to fear is fear itself.

We can accomplish great things if we look at problems face on rather than being held back by doubt and fear.


Franklin D. Roosevelt made this expression famous in his 1933 inaugural address:

So, first of all, let me assert my firm belief that the only thing we have to fear is fear itself — nameless, unreasoning, unjustified terror which paralyzes needed efforts to convert retreat into advance. In every dark hour of our national life a leadership of frankness and of vigor has met with that understanding and support of the people themselves which is essential to victory. And I am convinced that you will again give that support to leadership in these critical days.

Most of Roosevelt's speech was written by Columbia University Professor Raymond Moly but it is believed that this part of the speech was not in the original, or at least not in this form. Some say that the writing of Henry David Thoreau inspired Roosevelt to add the "fear itself" line. An anthology of Thoreau's writing was apparently in Roosevelt's hotel room including a journal entry by Thoreau from 1851: “Nothing is so much to be feared as fear." However, Professor Moly pointed to Louis Howe as the source of the expression, but doubted that Howe (a reporter for the New York Herald , who favored detective novels and was an early political advisor to President Franklin D. Roosevelt) had been reading Thoreau. Instead he believed that Howe probably saw it in a department store's newspaper ad some months before. It is possible that the ad was for Wanamaker's department store which ran a campaign in the New York Times during that period with each ad footnoted by an inspirational platitude - but no Wanamaker ad using Thoreau's phrase has been found to confirm if this is the case. Thoreau, in turn, was most likely inspired by earlier writers including French philosopher Michel de Montaigne who wrote, "Nothing is terrible except fear itself" in 1580; and Francis Bacon and The Duke of Wellington who are both on record as saying "The only thing I am afraid of is fear," Bacon in 1623 and Wellington in c.1832.

Support BookBrowse

Join our inner reading circle, go ad-free and get way more!

Find out more

Book Jacket: Long Island

BookBrowse Book Club

Book Jacket

Members Recommend

Book Jacket

This Strange Eventful History by Claire Messud

An immersive, masterful story of a family born on the wrong side of history.

Book Jacket

The Stolen Child by Ann Hood

An unlikely duo ventures through France and Italy to solve the mystery of a child’s fate.

Who Said...

A library is thought in cold storage

Click Here to find out who said this, as well as discovering other famous literary quotes!

Solve this clue:

R is a D B S C

and be entered to win..


Your guide to exceptional           books

BookBrowse seeks out and recommends the best in contemporary fiction and nonfiction—books that not only engage and entertain but also deepen our understanding of ourselves and the world around us.

Subscribe to receive some of our best reviews, "beyond the book" articles, book club info and giveaways by email.

The Mastery of Fear

Author:  King, Martin Luther, Jr.

Date:  July 21, 1957 ?

Location:  Montgomery, Ala. ?

Genre:  Sermon

Topic:  Martin Luther King, Jr. - Career in Ministry

King delivered “The Mastery of Fear” as the second in his series on “Problems of Personality Integration.” 1 He kept the following three handwritten documents in the same file folder. In each, King urges his listeners to openly confront their fears. He incorporates quotations found in Harry Emerson Fosdick's sermon “The Conquest of Fear,” Fosdick's essay “Dealing with Fear and Anxiety,” a newspaper column by Benjamin Mays, and Robert McCracken's sermon “What to Do with Our Fears?” 2

The Mastery of Fear, Sermon notes

They are part of the fee we pay for [ citizen? ]

Of primary importance in dealing with fear is making a practice of looking fairly and squarely at the object of our dread. 3  Emerson “He has not learded the lesson of life who does not eveyday surmount a fear." 4

One of the chief services of ministers and psychiatrists is to be listening-posts, where crammed bosoms, long burdendd with surreptitious fears, can unload themselves. 5

Fear of dark, of water, of closed places, of high place, of cats, of Friday, of walking undr a ladder, fear of resposinblity; of old age and death 6

Get them in open and sometimes laugh at them. Dr Sadler said “Ridicule is the master cure of fear and axiety.”

  • There is an area of fear which mist be mastered with goodwill and love.
  • It is overcome by possessing adequate interior Resources

The cure of fear is Faith 7

"The Mastery of Fear," Sermon outline

  • Int. There is probably no emotion that plagues and crumbles the human personality more than that of fear. Every where we turn we  meet  see that monster fear; every road we travel we meet that monster fear. Fear expresses itself in such diverse forms—fear of others, fear of oneself, fear of growing old, fear of death, fear of change, fear of disease and poverty; Russia fears America and America fears Russia, the young lady fears that she will not be married, the  impure  wrongdoer fears that he will get caught. 8  Every where we turn we see that monster fear; every road we travel we meet that monster fear. Fear begins to accumulate to the point that at last many face what psychiatrists call phobo‐phobia, the fear of fear, being afraid of being afraid. 9  Fear of death. The terrifying spectacle of atomic warfare has put Hamelet's words “To be or not to be” on millions of trembling lips. 10  Fear has risen to such extensiv propotions in  the  contemporary  world  life that one of the leading psychiatrists of the world has said: “If fear were abolished from modern life, the work of the psychotherapist would be nearly gone.” 11
  • Text: It seems that Jesus had an amazing insight into the tragic and ominous effects that can flow forth from fear. He was continually saying to his followers “fear not” “Be not afraid” Be not anxious”
  • Now we must make it clear that the admonition Be not afraid does not mean get rid of all fear. Without fear the human race could have never survived Fear is the elemental alarm system of the human organism which make it sensitive to the first sign of danger. Fear of darkness, fear of pain, fear of ignorance, fear of war. 12
  • Fear is a powerfully creative force. The fear of ignorance leads to education etc … Every saving invention and every intellectual advance has behind it as a part of its motivation the desire to avoid or escape some dreaded thing. And so Angelo Patri is right in saying, “Education consist in being afraid at the right time.” 13  So if by “a fearless man” we mean one who is not afraid of anything, we are picturing, not a wise man, but a defective mind. There are normal and abnormal fears
  • So the difficulty of our problem is that we are not to get rid of fear altogether, but we must harness it and master it. 14  Like fire it is a useful and necessary servant, but a runious master. It is fear when it becomes terror, panic and chronic anxiety that we must seek to eliminate
  • Of basic importance in mastering fear is the need of getting out in the open the object of our fear and frankly facing it. Human life is full of secret fears.
  • A further step in mastering fear is to remember that it always involves the misuse of the imagination

"Mastering Our Fears"

Our problem is not to get rid of fear altogether, but to harness it master it. 19

How do we harness fear.

  • The universality and oldness of fear
  • Russia fears America and America Russia
  • Mangement fears labor and labor [ management? ]
  • The Negro fears the White man and the White man the [ Negro? ] 15 Everywhere we turn we  meet  see that monster fear; every road we travel we meet that moster fear—fear of others, fear of the future, fear of change, fear of old age, fear of disease—and at last many come to that chronic state of what the psychiatrists call phobophobia, the fear of fear, being afraid of being afraid. 16  And so our homes, institutions, prisons, churches are filled with people who are hounded by day and harrowed by night because of some fear that lurks ready to spring into action as soon as one is alone, or as soon as the lights go out

Jesus realized both the gravity and the disastrous effects of fear in human life. He said again and again “Be not afraid,” “Be not anxious.” All of this shows his clairvoyance into many a broken and hopeless life. 17

So that one of the great questions of life is how to harness fear.

  • Fear is the elemental alarm system of the human organism 18
  • In modern life fear helps us through. Although there is some fear that is necessay, there is some fear that is ruinous and destructive.
  • [ strikeout illegible ] Many of the fears of the modern world can be traced back to moral wrongdoing.
  • The garden of Eden 21
  • the fear of the white man

Now you are asking what relation does love have to fear. Let us look at ourselves.  The  There are within all of us tides of evil which [ can? ] rise to flood proportions and the slumberig giant …

Someone is asking what relation does love have to fear. Let us look at ourselves. There are within tides of

But did you ever stop to realize that this envy and jealousy grow out of fear. We are not jealous of people and then fea them, but we fear them first and then become jealous and envious—We are afraid of the superiority of others, afraid that

  • The basic cause of war is fear. Of course there are other causes—economic, political, racial,—but they all spring from and are shot through with fear. 23
  • We are accostomed to hearing that hate cause war. But the sequence of events is generally quite otherwise—first fear, then war, then hate. Fear of another nation attack, fear of another nations economic supremacy, fear of lost markets.
  • The old remedy for fear was great armaments. But how futile. Instead of being a remedy great armament has become a cause for fear. It is only love that will solve the problem.
  • of basic importance in mastering fear is making a practice of looking fairly and squarly at the object of our fear. 24  “Ridicule is the master cure of fear” 25
  • A great deal of fear can be overcome by living a clar and upright moral life 26
  • Fear is mastered through love. A common cause of fear is the awareness of inadequate [ resources? ]
  • Fear is mastered through faith.}
  • Now it is true that many fears which people possess they are not responsible for. There fears got an  early  long start in them from early childhood from unfortunate accident and unwise parents. The are only two fears which a baby is born with—fear of falling and fear of loud noises. Every other fear is accumulated—name the fears. 27  Every parent is responsible
  • But beneath all of this is the fact that most people do not have the proper spiritual equipment to face the tensions of life.

This is what religion gives a man. It gives him internal resources to face the problems of life.

It gives him the awaness the he is a child of God. He knows that he is

1.  “Members Enjoying Sermon Series,”  Dexter Echo , 7 August 1957.

2.  Fosdick,  The Hope of the World , pp. 59-68; Fosdick,  On Being a Real Person , pp. 108-132; Mays, “Two Fears,”  Pittsburgh Courier , 20 July 1946; McCracken,  Questions People Ask , pp. 122-129.

3.  McCracken,  Questions People Ask , p. 125: “The first is that we make a practice of looking fairly and squarely at our fears.” Fosdick,  On Being a Real Person , p. 112: “Of primary importance in dealing with fear is the need of getting out into the open the object of our dread and frankly facing it.”

4.  Ralph Waldo Emerson, “Courage,” in  Society and Solitude  (1870). Fosdick also used this quote in  On Being a Real Person , p. 115.

5.  Fosdick,  On Being a Real Person , p. 113: “One of the chief services of ministers and psychiatrists is to be listening-posts, where crammed bosoms, long burdened with surreptitious fears, can unload themselves.”

6.  Fosdick,  The Hope of the World , p. 63: “Fear of the dark, fear of water, fear of closed places, fear of open places, fear of altitude, fear of death, fear of hell, fear of cats, fear of Friday the thirteenth, fear of walking under a ladder—anybody who knows that hinterland and slum district of the mind knows how tragic it is.”

7.  Fosdick,  On Being a Real Person , p. 132: “It was a psychiatrist, Dr. Sadler, who, having said in one place, ‘Ridicule is the master cure for fear and anxiety,’ struck a deeper note when he said in another, ‘The only known cure for fear is  faith .’” For the source of this quote, see William S. Sadler,  The Mind at Mischief  (New York: Funk & Wagnalls, 1929), p. 43.

8.  Fosdick,  The Hope of the World , pp. 60-61: “Everywhere, all the time, men and women face fear—fear of others, fear of themselves, fear of change, fear of growing old, fear of disease and poverty …”

9.  Fosdick,  The Hope of the World , p. 61: “… and at last many face what the psychiatrists call phobo‐phobia, the fear of fear, being afraid of being afraid.”

10.  Shakespeare,  Hamlet , act 3, sc. 1. King wrote this sentence in a second pen.

11.  Fosdick,  On Being a Real Person , p. 111: “When it becomes terror, hysteria, phobia, obsessive anxiety, it tears personality to pieces. Dr. J. A. Hadfield says: ‘If fear were abolished from modern life, the work of the psychotherapist would be nearly gone.’” For a similar quote, see Fosdick,  The Hope of the World , p.65. For Hadfield's words, see J. A. Hadfield,  The Psychology of Power  (New York: Macmillan, 1924), p. 36.

12.  Fosdick,  The Hope of lhe World , p. 59: “Fear is the elemental alarm system of the human organism, one of our primary and indispensable instincts.”

13.  Fosdick,  On Being a Real Person , p. 110: “Angelo Patri is right in saying, ‘Education consists in being afraid at the right time.’” Fosdick may have gotten this quote from William H. Burnham's book  The Normal Mind  (New York: D. Appleton, 1924), p. 417. Patri, an educator and expert on child psychology, disavowed any use of fear in child-rearing ( Child Training  [New York: D. Appleton, 1922], pp. 19, 250).

14.  Fosdick,  The Hope of the World , p. 60: “Indeed, this is the difficulty of our problem, that our business is not to get rid of fear but to harness it, curb it, master it.”

15.  Morehouse president Benjamin Mays devoted his 20 July 1946 newspaper column to the issue of fear: “Thousands of Negroes live in physical fear of what the white man might do to them … The fear on the part of many white people is equally disturbing and must be overcome” (“Two Fears,”  Pittsburgh Courier ).

16.  Cf. Fosdick,  The Hope of the World , pp. 60-61.

17.  Fosdick,  The Hope of the World , p. 59: “Jesus, however, while he did say, ‘Go, and sin no more,’ said again and again, ‘Fear not,’ ‘Be not afraid,’ ‘Be not anxious,’ which shows his clairvoyance into many a broken and hopeless life.”

18.  Cf. Fosdick,  The Hope of The World , p. 59.

19.  Cf. Fosdick,  The Hope of the World , p. 60.

20.  Fosdick,  The Hope of the World , p. 61: “One primary condition is a clean and upright life, for if we could be rid of the fears that follow moral wrongdoing we should be a long way out of our problem.”

21.  Fosdick gave an account of the story of the Garden of Eden in “The Conquest of Fear” ( The Hope of the World , p. 61 ).

22.  Cf. 1 John 4:18.

23.  In his 20 July 1946  Pittsburgh Courier  column “Two Fears,” Mays asserted, “Fear is the greatest enemy of mankind. It is the foundation of many wars.”

24.  Cf. McCracken,  Questions People Ask , p. 125; cf. Fosdick,  On Being a Real Person , p. 112.

25.  Cf. Fosdick,  On Being a Real Person , p. 132.

26.  Cf. Fosdick,  The Hope of the World , p. 61.

27.  Fosdick,  The Hope of the World , p. 63: “A normal baby's fear instinct has only two expressions, the dread of falling and the dread of a loud noise. That is all. Every other fear we possess we have accumulated since … We parents have few duties more sacred than to see to it that our children do not catch from us unnecessary and abnormal fears.”

Source:  CSKC-INP, Coretta Scott King Collection, In Private Hands, Sermon Files, folder 118.

©  Copyright Information

  • Current Issue
  • Back Issues

Fear Itself   /   Fall 2003   /    Bibliographic Review

Bibliographical essay on fear, wilson brissett.

Recent work on fear in contemporary culture is at once remarkably wide-ranging and surprisingly interconnected. Despite the myriad of topics scrutinized under the academic study of fear, scholars are unified in their assessment that fear is deeply engrained in contemporary culture. If we ever thought that a total eclipse of fear was part of the natural maturation process of an enlightened society, it seems impossible to take that position today. And while much of the scholarship seeks to locate and interpret fear in its particular manifestations, there is also a consistent and urgent drive to push behind the specific examples in order to understand how fear itself may be, for good or ill, a foundational cultural element of liberal society.

While fear has been an occasional topic of scholarly interest for quite some time, the problem of fear in contemporary culture was first studied systematically in the late 1990s, when a host of books were published on what was called “the culture of fear.” These sociological studies criticized the media, politicians, and even some intellectuals for sensationalizing crime, disease, drugs, and other social problems in order to benefit from the fascinated paranoia of uninformed readers. Since this initial flurry of publications, the study of fear has widened its purview to consider terrorism, conspiracy theories, postmodernism, the arts, and political and ethical philosophy—to name the major topics of this essay.

Perhaps the most consistent conclusion of these recent studies has been that fear is a plague within our society because it is regularly and intentionally misused to further suspect economic, political, or ethnic motives. Fear is the instrument of choice in the hands of those agents, the powerful and the disenfranchised alike, who seek to achieve shortsighted goals at the expense of ignoring the deeper, more complex problems of liberal society. Furthermore, the perseverance of irrational fear within supposedly rationalistic societies is often explained as a result of a general sense of insecurity due to the failure of various religious, political, artistic, and scientific metanarratives in the twentieth century.

Others understand fear as a useful epistemological tool closely allied with suspicion. On this view, an unacknowledged foundation of the liberal tradition is its ability to employ fear as suspicion as a means to overcome the harmful effects of fear as prejudice . This conception of fear as constitutive, in part, of the liberal tradition has its supporters in political as well as ethical philosophy, and it has been spun out into new theories of multiculturalism, justice, and ethical judgment claiming that human flourishing will increase more by intentionally avoiding cruelty than by chasing elusive utopian figurations of “the good society.”

It seems clear that unless we come to a more nuanced view of the role fear plays in contemporary culture, we will have learned little from the amazing energy that has recently been put into the study of this emotion that looms so large in our social and cultural lives.

Reprinted from The Hedgehog Review 5.3 (Fall 2003). This essay may not be resold, reprinted, or redistributed for compensation of any kind without prior written permission. Please contact The Hedgehog Review for further details.

Search articles, blog posts, and people

Forgot your password?


Essay on Fear

Students are often asked to write an essay on Fear in their schools and colleges. And if you’re also looking for the same, we have created 100-word, 250-word, and 500-word essays on the topic.

Let’s take a look…

100 Words Essay on Fear

Understanding fear.

Fear is a basic human emotion that alerts us to the presence of danger. It is fundamental to our survival, making us respond quickly when we sense a threat.

Fear’s Role

Fear helps us make decisions that protect us from harm. It triggers our ‘fight or flight’ response, preparing our bodies to either confront or escape danger.

Overcoming Fear

Fear can be overcome by understanding and facing it. When we challenge our fears, we learn to control them, reducing their impact on our lives.

The Positive Side of Fear

Fear can also be positive, motivating us to push beyond our comfort zones, leading to personal growth and achievement.

Also check:

  • Paragraph on Fear
  • Speech on Fear

250 Words Essay on Fear

Fear is an innate emotional response to perceived threats. It is evolutionarily wired into our brains, acting as a survival mechanism that alerts us to danger and prepares our bodies to react. While fear can be a beneficial response, it can also be debilitating when it becomes chronic or irrational.

The Physiology of Fear

Fear triggers a cascade of physiological responses, including the release of adrenaline and cortisol. These hormones prepare the body for the ‘fight or flight’ response by increasing heart rate, blood pressure, and glucose levels. This process, while crucial for survival in threatening situations, can lead to health problems if sustained over a long period.

Fear and the Mind

Psychologically, fear can be both a conscious and subconscious experience. It can be based on real threats or imagined ones, leading to anxiety disorders and phobias. Fear can also influence decision-making, often leading to risk-averse behavior. Understanding the psychological aspects of fear is essential for effective mental health treatment.

Overcoming fear involves recognizing and confronting it. Techniques such as cognitive behavioral therapy, exposure therapy, and mindfulness-based stress reduction can be effective. These strategies aim to change the thought patterns that lead to fear and teach coping mechanisms to manage fear responses.

Fear in Society

Fear also plays a significant role in society, influencing politics, economics, and social interactions. It can be used as a tool of manipulation, or it can drive societal change. Recognizing the societal implications of fear is crucial for fostering a more understanding and empathetic society.

In conclusion, fear is a complex emotion with profound impacts on individuals and society. Understanding its mechanisms and implications can help us navigate our fears and use them as catalysts for growth.

500 Words Essay on Fear


Fear is a universal human experience, an essential part of our biological makeup that has evolved over millions of years. It is a complex emotion that can be both protective and paralyzing, serving as a warning signal for danger while also potentially hindering personal growth and exploration. This essay explores the multifaceted nature of fear, its psychological implications, and its role in shaping human behavior and society.

The Biological Basis of Fear

Fear is fundamentally rooted in our biology. It is a response triggered by the amygdala, a small, almond-shaped structure in the brain that processes emotional stimuli. When we perceive a threat, the amygdala activates the body’s fight-or-flight response, leading to physiological changes such as increased heart rate, rapid breathing, and heightened alertness. This response is adaptive and has been crucial for human survival, allowing us to react quickly to potential threats.

The Psychological Aspect of Fear

Psychologically, fear is a multifaceted emotion with wide-ranging implications. It can be both acute, as in the immediate response to a threat, and chronic, as in the long-term fear associated with anxiety disorders. Fear can also be learned through conditioning or observation, which explains why different individuals may have different fear responses to the same stimulus.

Fear can lead to avoidance behavior, where individuals steer clear of situations that they perceive as threatening. While this can be protective, it can also be limiting, preventing individuals from pursuing opportunities and experiences that could lead to personal growth.

Fear and Society

On a societal level, fear can be both a unifying and a divisive force. It can bring people together in the face of a common threat, but it can also be exploited to manipulate public opinion and justify oppressive policies. Fear can lead to stereotyping and discrimination, as individuals or groups are scapegoated as threats to societal safety and order.

Overcoming fear involves recognizing and understanding it. Cognitive-behavioral therapy (CBT) is one effective method, as it helps individuals reframe their fearful thoughts and gradually expose themselves to feared situations. Mindfulness and meditation can also be beneficial, allowing individuals to stay present and focused rather than getting caught up in fearful thoughts.

In conclusion, fear is an integral part of the human experience, with deep biological roots and far-reaching psychological and societal implications. While it can be protective, it can also be limiting and divisive. Understanding and managing fear is therefore crucial, not just for individual well-being, but also for societal harmony and progress. As we navigate through an increasingly complex and uncertain world, the ability to confront and overcome our fears will be more important than ever.

That’s it! I hope the essay helped you.

If you’re looking for more, here are essays on other interesting topics:

  • Essay on Family
  • Essay on Ethics
  • Essay on Equality

Apart from these, you can look at all the essays by clicking here .

Happy studying!

Leave a Reply Cancel reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

Save my name, email, and website in this browser for the next time I comment.

essay on fear is fear itself no longer supports Internet Explorer.

To browse and the wider internet faster and more securely, please take a few seconds to  upgrade your browser .

Enter the email address you signed up with and we'll email you a reset link.

  • We're Hiring!
  • Help Center

paper cover thumbnail

The only thing we have to fear is the 'culture of fear' itself NEW ESSAY: How human thought and action are being stifled by a regime of uncertainty

Profile image of Frank Furedi

Related Papers

Valérie de Courville Nicol

This course explores the interactive subjective, moral, social, and embodied dimensions of the experience and production of fear in its various expressions, including risk. Fear and risk are examined in relation to various topics and perspectives including social conformity, emotion management, emotional socialization, structures of feeling, rhetoric, social movements, risk society, governmentality, subjectivity, otherness, and pleasure. Students will become familiarized with and acquire a meaningful understanding of basic concepts and debates in the field and will cultivate their reading, speaking and essay-writing skills. While the course focuses on understanding the dynamics of fear and risk in contemporary North American and more generally Western culture, insights into its dynamics in other historical periods and cultural contexts are welcome.

essay on fear is fear itself

The Sociological Review

Andrew Tudor

Emotions and Society

Andreas Schmitz

Spiked online

Frank Furedi

Fear plays a key role in twenty-first century consciousness. Increasingly, we seem to engage with various issues through a narrative of fear. You could see this trend emerging and taking hold in the last century, which was frequently described as an 'Age of Anxiety'(1). But in recent decades, it has become more and better defined, as specific fears have been cultivated.

Maximiliano E. Korstanje

This chapter can be seen as the corollary of the book. The authors summarize the main findings of an ethnography that took five long years in the main bus stations and airport of the country. The four schools of risk perception were placed under the critical lens of scrutiny because of methodological limitations. The current chapter presents a rich empirical research, which though not statistically represented, helps in the expansion of the current understanding of risk perception. The ways risks are conceived in laypeople and experts notably vary. The authors finally found a clear correlation between trauma and risk aversion in professionals while bad working conditions are the preconditions to perceive further risks in laypeople.

Elisabeth R Anker

Global Society

John Handmer , Paul James

The contemporary Western preoccupation with risk assessment is profound. However, this does not mean that the concept of risk is a useful theoretical tool for understanding contemporary society in general. The talk of a risk society is part of a tendency to take risk as an all-embracing category with little attention paid either to the distinction between abstract risk and risk assessment, or to different formations of risk in time and place. We argue that a fundamental shift in the communication of risk has also emerged, particularly in the context of the war on terror. Most of the classical risk com-munication literature is concerned with persuading people that the authorities or com-panies have the expertise to take care of some problem: “there is a risk”, it says, “we can never manage it completely, but be reassured that we are taking care of it on your behalf”. With the emergence of the war on terror, a number of changes have occurred. Govern-ments in the United States, the United Kingdom, Australia and elsewhere stress the novelty and radical emergence of terrorism-as-risk, in part by ignoring history and con-centrating on the symptoms to maintain a continuing sense of danger. Second, the prior emphasis on experts and expert systems for generating risk assessment is being actively undermined by ideologues. These changes represent a disturbing shift from the dominance of the Enlightenment idea of trusting in science and knowledge to accepting a post-Enlightenment idea that authority and ideology are all that can ever underpin the assessment of abstract risk, particularly in the case of terrorism.

penny vera-sanso

Book synopsis: Looking at the concept of risk from a cross-cultural perspective, the contributors challenge the Eurocentric frameworks within which notions of risk are more commonly considered. They argue that perceptions of danger, and sources of anxiety, are far more socially and culturally constructed -- and far more contingent -- than risk theorists generally admit. Topics covered include prostitutes in London; AIDS in Tanzania; the cease-fire in Northern Ireland; the volcanic eruptions in Montserrat; modernisation in Amazonia; and the BSE scare in Britain.

Public Understanding of Science

David M Berube

Two comparative book reviews. Daniel Gardner, Risk: The Science and Politics of Fear (London:9780670917013. £18.98 (hbk) published in the USA as The Science of Fear: Why we Fear the THings We Shouldn't--And Put Ourselves in Grave Danger (NY: Dutton, 2008. 352 pp. ISBN 9780525950622) and Simon Briscoe and Hugh Aldersey-Williams, Panicology: What Are You Afraid Of? Two Statisticians Explain What's Worth Worrying About (and What's Not) in the 21st Century. London: Viking Pneguin. 2008). 304 pp. ISBN 9780670917013. £18.98 (hbk).

Geoffrey Skoll

This chapter argues that by the end of the second decade of the twenty-first century mass, public fear came from social control efforts on behalf of global capital. Beginning about 1970 the system of capital became globalized and faced a long term crisis of over accumulation and concentration with a parallel falling rate of profit. The need to control increasingly impoverished working classes throughout the world required concerted campaigns using forceful repression by intelligence-military-police apparatuses and ideological manipulations using propaganda and public relations. Technological developments made possible increasingly tighter control over public narratives, especially in the form of so-called social media. Fears were manufactured and public attention and consciousness were diverted so that the liberation and de-colonial movements of the post Second World War period were blunted to assure continued hegemony of a global ruling class. In short, this chapter argues for constructed public fears as part of the increasingly critical class war during a long term crisis of world capitalism.


Alfio Quarteroni

Industrial Marketing Management

Pierre Filiatrault

Percées: Explorations en arts vivants

Justine Berthillot

Desalination and Water Treatment

Sooyoung Park

Dea Zerlinda

Pakistan Journal of Agriculture, Agricultural Engineering and Veterinary Sciences

Shehnaz Panhwar

Journal of Ethnopharmacology

Nirbhay Kumar

Food and chemical toxicology : an international journal published for the British Industrial Biological Research Association

roberta onori

Ahi Evran International Conference on Scientific Research 30 November-1-2 December, 2021

Dr. Osman ORAL

Journal of Experimental Psychology: Human Perception and Performance

Robert M. Nosofsky

Journal of Contemporary History

Dianne Kirby

哪里购买ua毕业证书 加拿大阿尔伯塔大学毕业证文凭证书英文原版一模一样

Natchanun Sanitdee

Pediatric Emergency Care

Selcuk Yuksel

Revista Enfermagem Contemporânea

Manoela Carvalho

International Journal of Rock Mechanics and Mining Sciences & Geomechanics Abstracts

Gabriel Fernandez

JUMADIKA: Jurnal Magister Pendidikan Matematika

Janet Manoy

Ege Üniversitesi Ziraat Fakültesi Dergisi

Mehmet Çetin

Journal of Veterinary Pharmacology and Therapeutics

Londa Berghaus

  •   We're Hiring!
  •   Help Center
  • Find new research papers in:
  • Health Sciences
  • Earth Sciences
  • Cognitive Science
  • Mathematics
  • Computer Science
  • Academia ©2024

To revisit this article, visit My Profile, then View saved stories .

  • Backchannel
  • Newsletters
  • WIRED Insider
  • WIRED Consulting

The Only Thing We Have to Fear Is … Fearing Fear Itself

Man looking through window blind

As an academic psychologist, I often answer questions from reporters on things about which I know little, from Bitcoin to public school overcrowding to the mindset of a mass murderer. So I have experience with getting things wrong publicly, as several experts in my field have done in their opining on the present coronavirus crisis. In February, we warned the public of the tendency to misinterpret risk and worry overmuch; we cited studies of a phenomenon called “ probability neglect ” to help explain why the new coronavirus shouldn’t push us into panic mode. Our message was clear and one-sided: Keep calm, we said, and don’t let emotions get the better of us.

Had I been asked to forecast how this whole thing would turn out, I probably would have made the same mistake and told reporters about research showing that feelings interfere with better judgment. But now, with the benefit of hindsight (and maybe chutzpah), I think that we psychologists may have something far more substantive to add: an explanation that doubles as a mea culpa. As we reflect on how we got to this point of mass death, large-scale lockdowns, and a perishing economy, there’s an opportunity to revisit how we talk about decisionmaking—to embrace its full complexity and whatever guidance it provides.

As we probe the United States’ insufficient response to the pandemic, the causes appear numerous. Commentators have pointed to an erratic president’s pettiness, Chinese propaganda, and burdensome regulation of medical treatments and devices, among other political factors. Or else they’ve cited dominant cultural values of America, where people love their freedom and autonomy and bristle at the thought of social distancing, mass testing, and business closures. This laundry list is missing something far more elemental, though—the flip side to the issue behavioral scientists raised several months ago. Back then, we guessed that concerns of viral spread would be inflated, on the whole, because emotions can miscalibrate our understanding of risk. Today it seems we had that bias backward: When faced with warnings of pandemic spread, people under estimated risk. Why?

I believe the true culprit here was another cultural factor endemic not just to psychologists but to Americans more broadly: an unhealthy aversion to fear. In February, headlines such as “ Excessive Fear of the Wuhan Coronavirus Can Be Dangerous ” and “ Fear Itself Is the Biggest Coronavirus Danger ” were commonplace. Among politicians, the disdain for this emotion would be bipartisan. “Fear is not going to be constructive here,” said West Virginia’s governor on March 13, in preparing his state for the virus. “We mustn’t let fear cause a panic,” tweeted the governor of Alabama a few days later. “We shouldn’t be driven by fear,” Jay Inslee implored , shortly before his state of Washington experienced a surge in cases. And New York’s Andrew Cuomo has been fear’s biggest foe, tweeting several times since late February that “ we can’t allow fear to outpace reason ,” and “ let’s fight fear with facts ” as his state became the epicenter of the carnage.

Read all of our coronavirus coverage here .

Cuomo’s remarks, in particular, point to a false dichotomy between fear and reason, feelings and facts. Here’s where I’ll make my own appeal to scientific authority and the literature of psychological research. Considerable work in my field has demonstrated that emotions don’t hamper reason but inform it. Fear, in particular, can be constructive, making us more effective decisionmakers in the face of risk.

A famous 1997 experiment led by neuroscientist Antoine Bechara showed what happens to people who struggle to generate and process negative emotion. Patients with damage to the ventromedial prefrontal cortex and people without brain impairments performed a gambling task. In the task, participants pick cards from four card decks, with each one drawn revealing either a financial gain or a loss. Some of the decks are bad bets for the player, overall, offering big rewards on some cards (win $100) but even bigger penalties on others (lose $1,000). Other decks are good bets: If drawn from consistently, participants win money over time. Bechara and colleagues found that brain-damaged patients with a deficit in processing negative emotions make dumb bets: They tend to draw from the bad decks until they go broke. Non-patients, on the other hand, develop a stress response to the bad decks and learn to avoid them. Their negative emotion wasn’t corrupting their decisionmaking—it was guiding it.

A much more recent study , published in 2016, demonstrated the specific role of fear in this same process. The researchers used the same gambling task as Bechara, comparing patients with traumatic brain injuries to non-patients. The latter made a bit more money from the cards, and they were also better able to recognize fearful expressions in a set of photographs . In fact, the two abilities—for gambling and understanding fear—appeared to be correlated. Other work on clinical populations who struggle to generate or experience fear show similar impairments in their understanding of risk.

What these sorts of studies indicate is that fear can aid decisionmaking. If we’d embraced our anxiety in the face of a pandemic, rather than doing our best to “fight” it as Andrew Cuomo suggested, we might have made better choices along the way. If we’d gone against Jay Inslee’s advice and allowed ourselves to be “driven” by a healthy dose of fear, we could have strengthened our desire to stay inside, stop traveling, wear masks, and avoid big crowds. This is not to suggest that people should let their fears become so intense as to cause paralysis or hostility . Rather, we need to overcome the false belief that emotions such as fear, anxiety, and stress make us weak, cowardly, and irrational.

person lathering hands with soap and water

By Meghan Herbst

Polling data supports this notion. A Pew survey of more than 11,000 adults, conducted in late March, asked people to report their feelings over the previous seven days, including how often they’d been “nervous, anxious, or on edge.” It also asked about the degree to which they supported and enacted social-distancing policies. The raw data are public, and I analyzed them to determine the relationship between feeling bad and doing good. I found that people who reported feeling more nervous, anxious, or on edge also said they were less comfortable visiting a close friend or going to a grocery store, more likely to have begun working from home and using food delivery services to avoid restaurants, and more supportive of closing schools and canceling sporting events.

That much is fairly intuitive: It makes sense that those most fearful of the virus would have been early adopters of practices intended to curb its spread. But one other data point stood out to me: A plurality of people in the survey reported feeling nervous, anxious, and on edge only “some or a little of the time;” whereas just 19 percent said they felt these emotions “most or all of the time.” Contrary to the idea that Americans would be letting negative emotions take over in the face of risk, it appears that most had steeled themselves in a way that would have made FDR proud.

Will we learn to embrace our feelings of terror, and act on them in useful ways, as this crisis moves forward? I am pessimistic. Our aversion to fear is rooted in a related problem, which is the fetishization of pure reason. Dispassionate logic is often floated as a panacea for our fractured society, a way to curb the spread of misinformation on social media and rebut the cries of fake news from political elites. It’s a noble goal, but the coronavirus crisis makes clear that pitting reason against emotion creates a false choice. Facts do care about your feelings, and we’d be wise to let our worries help to guide us in the weeks and months to come.

  • How Argentina’s strict Covid-19 lockdown saved lives
  • In one hospital, finding humanity in an inhuman crisis
  • How is the coronavirus pandemic affecting climate change ?
  • An oral history of the pandemic warnings Trump ignored
  • FAQs: All your Covid-19 questions, answered
  • Read all of our coronavirus coverage here

Inside the Biggest FBI Sting Operation in History

By Joseph Cox

This Hacker Tool Extracts All the Data Collected by Windows’ New Recall AI

By Matt Burgess

The Age of the Drone Police Is Here

By Dhruv Mehrotra

China Miéville Writes a Secret Novel With the Internet’s Boyfriend

By Hannah Zeavin

The Week

  • Home Home -->
  • News News -->
  • World World -->

‘The only thing we have to fear is fear itself’: FDR’s words resonate louder than ever

One must stay optimistic during this unprecedented testing and distressing times

R. Viswanathan

“The only thing we have to fear is fear itself,” the famous quote of Franklin D. Roosevelt (FDR) resonated with me in these days of fear over the Coronavirus infection. While researching on this, I came across the film Warm Springs which focuses on FDR’s paralytic stroke and how he overcame the disability and fear and became one of the greatest presidents of the United States.

The quote about fear was not just a rhetoric of FDR’s inaugural address, written by clever speech writers. It came from the bottom of his heart, based on his own personal fears after he was paralysed in August 1921. During his summer stay in the family vacation home at Campobello Island in Canada, he went for a swim in the lake. When he came back, he had pain in the legs and hips. He went to bed. But he could not get up or stand or walk thereafter. The doctor diagnosed it as infantile paralysis or polio which was prevalent at that time among children but hit the adults also rarely. He was paralysed from waist down and lost the use of his legs. He needed help to dress, undress and to use the toilet and bathroom. He was devastated and devoured by dark thoughts.

At that time, he was a strong and healthy 38-year-old ambitious man with a promising future ahead. He used to play polo, golf and tennis. He enjoyed shooting, sailing and rowing. He had studied at Harvard and Columbia universities and became an Assistant Secretary of Navy in the Federal government. He had attended the inauguration of his uncle Theodore Roosevelt as president. FDR was a rising star and had dreams of a promising future until the tragedy struck in 1921.

Besides suffering from severe pain, FDR felt anger and shame. He felt angry when other people sympathized and pitied. He was ashamed since he was considered a “cripple”, a stigma at that time. So he left his family and went away to Florida and spent time in his house boat. There he heard of the “warm springs” a resort in Georgia which had thermal springs that helped with hydrotherapy. But when he went there, he was even more angry. The sight of other crippled people around him disgusted him. The resort was poorly maintained and restricted the use by cripples, except for during off season. The healthy, rich people who used the thermal resort during the season did not like the presence of cripples. When FDR insisted on using the springs during the season, he was given separate timings and had to use separate rooms for dining since the “healthy” guests did not like to see cripples in the main dining room. FDR felt humiliated.

It was at this time that a physiotherapist arrived to the rescue of FDR. She helped him with exercises and more importantly changed his mindset. She helped him get out of denial and his mental paralysis. She made him accept and live with the reality. She made him feel comfortable with his own body besides feeling at home in the crowd of other disabled people. It was only then that he started a new life. He started joining the group activities and began to laugh and enjoy their company. He invested his own money and bought the resort and improved the facilities. Even after he left the resort, it continued as a reputed rehabilitation centre in the country. In fact, his life insurance money after his death was pledged to the trust which ran the centre.

Born in a wealthy aristocratic family, FDR had lived a privileged life. It was only after his own physical suffering and seeing the misery of other fellow polio victims that FDR discovered true compassion and empathy for the disadvantaged. These new virtues of FDR motivated him even more for his New Deal policies to make life better for those unemployed and impoverished by the Great Depression.

When he was fighting the pain with shame and anger, the last thing on his mind was politics. He just wanted to get away from everyone and wanted to live privately. Even his possessive mother favoured his retirement from public life. But his friend and political advisor Louis Howe kept insisting for FDR’s return to politics. Eleanor, his wife, also supported it so that he could divert his mind from his private suffering. So reluctantly, FDR agreed to go back to New York and revive his political career. He won the election to be the governor of New York state in 1928. He then contested and won four consecutive elections to Presidency, a record in the electoral history of the country. He led the US at the most challenging and traumatic times of the Great Depression and the second World War from 1933 to 1945.


FDR’s handicap was kept as a kind of secret from the public. He did not want the people to see his disabled condition and ensured that he was never seen using his wheel chair in public. His public appearances were carefully choreographed to hide the secret of his handicap. He would walk a few steps on the stage with the help of metal braces from hip to foot on both sides and holding on to clutches or cane. He usually appeared in public standing upright, supported on one side by an aide or one of his sons. The press and photographers also quietly collaborated and never talked about his handicap or published photos of him in wheel chair. Thank god, there was no Trump or Fox news at that time. The only time he moved around in wheel chair publicly was when he visited the hospital with wounded and amputated soldiers. He joked with them that he did not need legs to become president.

Throughout his public life after 1921, he had the constant fear that he might fall while trying to walk with the help of braces. He feared that his secret of disability might be exposed and political career finished. 

There was another secret, too. Before the paralysis, FDR had fallen in love with his wife’s social secretary Lucy Mercer. When his wife Eleanor found out and confronted him, he wanted a divorce. They had five children at that time. But the strong-willed and widowed mother of FDR ruled out divorce as a stigma for the family. She threatened to cut off FDR’s inheritance. So he agreed to continue with the marriage and stop seeing Lucy. This happened just before the paralytic attack. But many years later, FDR started seeing Lucy again secretly. In fact, she was with him when he died in 1945 at a southern resort, while his wife was in Washington DC.

The old fox had even more secrets. He had enjoyed the company of many young women and had secret affairs, even as president. Perhaps, the handsome and virile FDR felt the need to prove himself even more after the disability. What is remarkable is that his children knew these escapades and were even accomplices to keep the old man happy. Eleanor came to know about these after FDR’s death.

‘Warm Springs’ is based on Franklin D. Roosevelt

Both in public and private lives, FRD kept his sufferings to himself fiercely. He did not want to share his feelings of fear, pain and grief. He suffered silently and stoically. He was lonely and tried to avoid as much as possible help from others. He always pushed his boundaries of disability, bearing pain and taking risks. This made him stronger mentally. He went beyond containing his suffering. He went out of his way to look cheerful, charming, lively, playful and humorous in public. These relentless efforts for external appearances became ingrained as habits gradually and became mark of his personality.

The successful way in which FDR managed to overcome his disability, pain and fears gave him extra self-confidence when he competed with his opponents in politics. This is the secret of his extraordinary success to have been elected as four-term president, a record in American history.

The poignant and powerful movie of FDR’s story in Warm Springs is inspiring to stay positive and optimistic during this unprecedented testing and distressing times.

The author is an expert in Latin American affairs.

  • US tornadoes: 19 dead as powerful storms ravage Texas, Oklahoma and Arkansas
  • Where to watch COPA America 2024: All USA stadiums hosting iconic CONMEBOL football tournamnet
  • At least 9 dead in Texas, Oklahoma and Arkansas after severe weather roars across region
  • United States

essay on fear is fear itself

Explained: Central Railway's Thane-Mumbai 'mega block'; Dates, stations and other info for commuters as Mumbai local trains to be hit

essay on fear is fear itself

New Zealand at ICC T20 World Cup 2024: Squad details, match schedule, venues, opponents and more

essay on fear is fear itself

'Last episode felt like Mirzapur': Best Twitter reactions as Panchayat Season 3 win over fans everywhere

essay on fear is fear itself

Record profits at India's largest banks likely to drive asset quality improvements in 2024-25: S&P

essay on fear is fear itself

Global trends point to dire future for older adults in the face of rising temperatures

Editor's pick.

essay on fear is fear itself

In UP, the most prominent feature in ongoing elections is silence

essay on fear is fear itself

Deepa Mehta's latest film, about a trans woman, is bold and tender

essay on fear is fear itself

Stroke care: What India needs to do

essay on fear is fear itself

Equity surge

Fear: Definition, Effects, and Overcoming Essay

  • To find inspiration for your paper and overcome writer’s block
  • As a source of information (ensure proper referencing)
  • As a template for you assignment

Effects of fear

How to overcome fear.

Webster’s dictionary defines fear as “an unpleasant, sometimes strong emotion caused by an anticipation or awareness of danger” or “anxious concern” Fear is a feeling that causes agitation and anxiety mostly caused by presence or imminence of danger. It is a state or condition marked by feeling of agitation or anxiety. It can also be described as a feeling of disquiet. Fear is an abstract concept and may have different meanings. Holder (2007) adds that fear is more pervasive when there is lack of faith that we have greater significance in the universe than what we own or how others perceive us.

Fear is manifested in many ways in human beings. It may manifest as showing signs of withdrawing or by cowering. But the most profound manifestation of fear is anger and hatred. People acts out their insecurity as anger which shows that they are the most fearful people.

Effects of fear have been documented in many studies. Fear has been documented to case mind paralyses, heart attacks and closure of fallopian tube due to fear of pain during child birth (Jim Rohn, 2004), describes fear, indifference, indecision, doubt, worry and timidness as the five greatest enemies within us which can destroy our lives completely. Fear may manifest itself in physical short term effects or affect your whole life. It will affect both he physiology of the body and the brain. Fear generates stress which manifests itself physically in many signs physically and emotionally. It causes judgmental errors and affects our reasoning that most of time when we are in a fearful situation; we tend to take the wrong action.

According to Sidney B., (1988), fear is a great paralyzer. It will keep you from making positive changes in your life and thus retard your recovery from depression. He continues to argue that fear persuades you to set easier goals and do less than your capability. It will also cause internal defense system fooling you that you have good reasons not to change. Fear of failure reduces the available alternatives you can pursue because you cannot stand by the outcome of what you do. You always feel that you cannot succeed in anything you try. It will keep you away from seeking help because you don’t want others to see you as a failure. Fear has been identified by psychologist as what causes people to give up when they are one step short to their goal. It will keep you stuck or make you develop unhealthy habits and behavior problems. Most of all fear keeps many people from taking risks.

Rim Rohn, (2004), argues that we are not born with courage, neither are we born with fear. He argues that some of our fears are brought on by our own experiences by what someone has told us or what we read in papers and books. Sri Swami Sivananda, (2007), describes fear as an illusion that cannot live. He suggests that to overcome fear we should always feel the presence of a Supreme Being watching us, by meditating and developing positive thoughts all the time. We should devote ourselves to eradicating fear. Since we have seen that fear is developed within our minds, it can also be eradicated within our mind and hence it is just a matter of reconditioning our minds that will help us overcome fear. It is also suggesting that we should share with others our fears. In this way they will help us find solutions to the cause of fears. President Roosevelt said, “We have nothing to fear but the fear itself” hence fearing fear starts and ends with us.

Holder P. (2007): FEAR… YOUR WORST ENEMY . Web.

Rohn, J., (2004). Build courage to face the enemies within. Web.

Sidney S., (1998). Getting Unstuck: Breaking through Your Barriers to Change . Web.

Sri Sivanand, S. (2007). The Divine Life Society: How to overcome fear. Web.

  • Management of Police Department
  • The Using Phrase "Retardation"
  • RIM and IBM Companies Environmental Scanning
  • Personality Theory of Abraham Maslow Critique
  • Postmodern Psychology and Counseling
  • Philosophy: The Most Ancient Discipline of Knowledge
  • Ethical Dilemma in the Psychologists Career
  • Grief Counseling With Multicultural Clients
  • Chicago (A-D)
  • Chicago (N-B)

IvyPanda. (2021, September 3). Fear: Definition, Effects, and Overcoming.

"Fear: Definition, Effects, and Overcoming." IvyPanda , 3 Sept. 2021,

IvyPanda . (2021) 'Fear: Definition, Effects, and Overcoming'. 3 September.

IvyPanda . 2021. "Fear: Definition, Effects, and Overcoming." September 3, 2021.

1. IvyPanda . "Fear: Definition, Effects, and Overcoming." September 3, 2021.


IvyPanda . "Fear: Definition, Effects, and Overcoming." September 3, 2021.

  • Share full article


Supported by

ESSAY; Fear Itself

William Safire

  • Oct. 21, 1987

essay on fear is fear itself

''Don't just do something -stand there,'' was the advice taken by the President of the United States, as the stock market crashed and one third of the air escaped from the nation's balloon of confidence.

Perhaps there was a case to be made for a day's silence at the top, to avoid sounding like Herbert Hoover. A much better case could have been made for a brief televised statement from the Oval Office, shown all over the world, reminding us of F.D.R.'s words - ''The only thing we have to fear is fear itself'' - and reviewing the latest evidence of continuing prosperity, from low unemployment to reduced deficits and increased housing starts, in a calm, realistic tone.

Mr. Reagan neither reassured us by shutting up or by speaking calmly. Instead, we saw him calling out ill-considered answers to shouted questions over the noise of helicopter engines. ''There is nothing wrong with the economy,'' he shouted. ''. . . all the business indices are up. Maybe some people see a chance to grab a profit.'' A day later, still over the engines, he was yelling ''The Congress is responsible for the deficit!''

In using the helicopter-hollering technique, which has become his sound-biting substitute for press conferences, the President demonstrated that (1) he is not the calm at the center of the storm; (2) his perception is that the sudden fall was caused by greedy profit-takers, which is absurd, and (3) he is reacting to the loss of confidence as if it were some kind of unfair personal criticism of his stewardship.

Here I go analyzing the political failure associated with the market nosedive, much as the satirist in Field and Stream magazine reviewed the gamekeeping passages in ''Lady Chatterley's Lover.'' But as one who predicted for years that the fall would be triggered by a junk-bond collapse (which was not the cause), I will stick to the political fallout.

Mr. Reagan loses, which means George Bush loses almost as much; both had been taking credit for the rain and must now take the blame for the drought. This is true even if no steep recession follows the crash, or even if the market stages a stunning comeback; part of the madness of crowds is to blame the political ins for the crowd's own panic.

Four of the five announced Democratic candidates gain, simply because their nomination is worth more when voters feel uneasy about the economic future under Republicans. The protectionist candidate, Richard Gephardt, may be forced on the defensive by charges that the fear of trade barriers contributed to the worldwide hemorrhage of confidence. Talk of Mario Cuomo will grow with increased fears of recession.

Among the non-Administration Republicans, Bob Dole neither gains nor loses; he has adopted a posture of observer rather than participant, available for remarks from the sidelines, the quotable pundit as candidate. Jack Kemp gains because he can talk knowledgeably about economics, and his longtime call for a return to a dollar pegged to a basket of commodities now assumes new urgency as a stabilizer. Pete du Pont must have lost a bundle personally, but is likely to pick up some support shaken off the Vice President. Pat Robertson likes to warn of a financial Armageddon.

All candidates face a new fact: The nation has been scared. People's plans have been changed, and the outlook is now different for a generation that never knew it could be standing on an existentialist's trap door. How does a politician answer the yearning for a new caution?

One way will be mechanistic: Control the market's capacity for volatility by stopping options arbitrage and restricting computerized decision-making.

Another approach will be roundly partisan, like F.D.R.'s summation of the Harding-Coolidge-Hoover era: ''Nine crazy years at the ticker and three long years in the breadline!''

A third path will be programmatic: Attack the budget deficit and defeat a rise in interest rates by raising taxes and cutting defense spending - but that would seem anti-Keynesian in the first stages of recession.

Few politicians will say ''Let's see if we can muddle through'' - a spending cut here, an oil import fee there, reciprocity at trade restrictions, incentives to save, a monetary course between the Scylla of inflation and the Charybdis of recession.

And do not search for a political figure with the courage to tell the millions who have been burned and frightened that no government can or should save us from the consequences of our personal economic risk-taking. The fault, dear fellow investors, is not in our system but in ourselves, that we are forgetful.

William A. Haseltine Ph.D.

Subconscious Fear: The Role of the Lower Brain

New research sheds light on the cerebellum's role beyond motor control..

Posted June 5, 2024 | Reviewed by Lybi Ma

  • What Is Fear?
  • Find a therapist to combat fear and anxiety
  • Fear is essential for survival, but excessive fear can lead to anxiety disorders.
  • Recent research reveals the cerebellum's role in fear regulation beyond motor control.
  • Understanding cerebellar involvement in fear offers insights for anxiety disorder treatments.

Fear is a fundamental emotion necessary for survival. We experience fear in several ways that have helped humans stay alive, but it can go beyond what is appropriate for survival. Persistent fear and anxiety are symptoms of posttraumatic stress disorder and general anxiety disorder, affecting about 8 percent of American women and 4 percent of American men. Where does this fear come from and where is it located in the brain? New research has begun to tell us that fear exists well below the conscious level in the cerebellum and is an important component of what was previously thought to be exclusively responsible for internal motor functions. New experiments examine this part of the brain with the ultimate hope that there may be improved treatments for anxiety and fear disorders.

The Role of the Cerebellum

The cerebellum, located at the back of the brain and intimately connected to the brainstem, has various motor and cognitive functions. It is well known for its role in maintaining balance, coordinating fine movements, and learning new motor skills. More recently, however, new research has demonstrated that the cerebellum contributes to certain cognitive abilities beyond motor control, such as attention , emotional processing, decision-making , and procedural learning.

Recent studies have observed the cerebellum's role, particularly in regulating fear. Fear is necessary for survival and humans learn fear responses through exposure. The cerebellum has been shown to contribute to learned fear responses, also known as conditioned fear responses. This is when a fear of a previously neutral stimulus (for example a tone, light, or context) is developed through a learning process like classical conditioning . The neutral stimulus is consistently paired with a threatening stimulus (like an electric shock or loud noise) creating an association whereby what was once neutral becomes frightening. For example, a tone repeatedly followed by an electric shock becomes frightening, regardless of whether or not the shock follows.

Functional brain imaging shows the involvement of the cerebellum in fear conditioning in humans but does not determine the exact role or even necessity of the cerebellum on fear. One way to assess the impact of a certain brain region on behavior is to study people who have experienced brain damage or brain lesions. A recent article was published in eNeuro describing a study conducted by researchers at the Department of Neurology and Center for Translational Neuro- and Behavioral Sciences at Essen University Hospital and the Department of Behavioral Neuroscience at Ruhr University Bochum in Germany. They investigated whether patients with cerebellar cortical degeneration have alterations in the acquisition and extinction of learned fear responses.

The Cerebellum and Fear

The study included 20 cerebellar patients and 21 controls. The cerebellar patients had ataxia, a condition of poor muscle control usually caused by damage to the cerebellum. Various conditions can lead to ataxia including genetic conditions, stroke, tumors, multiple sclerosis, and degenerative diseases. All participants were given an electric shock when presented with a blue, red, or yellow light. The experiment was split into different phases: habituation, fear acquisition training, and extinction training on the first day and recall phase on the second day. Electrocardiograms and skin conductance responses were recorded using magnetic resonance imaging and electrocardiogram devices during the experiment. The participants also filled out questionnaires rating their fear.

For comparison, the study also examined fear conditioning in mice with cerebellar cortical degeneration. The mice were placed in a fear conditioning chamber where they heard a tone followed by a shock. The mice were brought to the fear extinction chamber for three consecutive days following the fear acquisition to ensure the fear was completely gone.

Study Results and Implications

Patients with cerebellar cortical degeneration showed mild deficits in fear learning compared with controls. They showed slower acquisition of fear associations and delayed consolidation of learned fear. Their extinction learning was slower, with indications of incomplete consolidation of fear associations. They required more time to recognize the associations between conditioned and unconditioned stimuli, indicating deficits in working memory processes. Behavioral abnormalities were mild compared to deficits observed in motor associative learning tasks. The researchers note that fear conditioning involves an extended neural network, including the amygdala, potentially compensating for cerebellar deficits.

The implications of the study are significant in a few ways. Primarily, the study sheds light on the involvement of the cerebellum in fear learning processes, which has been less understood compared to the role of the cerebellum in motor control. The study highlights the cerebellum’s role in cognitive and emotional processes. Additionally, the study has clinical implications for patient care and treatment development. By recognizing that patients with cerebellar cortical degeneration may exhibit deficits in fear learning, healthcare professionals can provide tailored interventions. There is also the potential to develop novel treatments or rehabilitation strategies targeting specific brain regions or pathways involved in fear conditioning, giving hope to those who may suffer from anxiety or stress disorders.

William A. Haseltine Ph.D.

William A. Haseltine, Ph.D., is known for his pioneering work on cancer, HIV/AIDS, and genomics. He is Chair and President of the global health think tank Access Health International. His recent books include My Lifelong Fight Against Disease.

  • Find a Therapist
  • Find a Treatment Center
  • Find a Psychiatrist
  • Find a Support Group
  • Find Online Therapy
  • United States
  • Brooklyn, NY
  • Chicago, IL
  • Houston, TX
  • Los Angeles, CA
  • New York, NY
  • Portland, OR
  • San Diego, CA
  • San Francisco, CA
  • Seattle, WA
  • Washington, DC
  • Asperger's
  • Bipolar Disorder
  • Chronic Pain
  • Eating Disorders
  • Passive Aggression
  • Personality
  • Goal Setting
  • Positive Psychology
  • Stopping Smoking
  • Low Sexual Desire
  • Relationships
  • Child Development
  • Self Tests NEW
  • Therapy Center
  • Diagnosis Dictionary
  • Types of Therapy

May 2024 magazine cover

At any moment, someone’s aggravating behavior or our own bad luck can set us off on an emotional spiral that threatens to derail our entire day. Here’s how we can face our triggers with less reactivity so that we can get on with our lives.

  • Emotional Intelligence
  • Gaslighting
  • Affective Forecasting
  • Neuroscience


  1. Fear Essay

    essay on fear is fear itself

  2. ⇉The Only Thing We Have to Fear, Is Fear Itself Essay Example

    essay on fear is fear itself

  3. Fear Essay

    essay on fear is fear itself

  4. Fear Essay: A Framework of Relevant Facts Free Essay Example

    essay on fear is fear itself

  5. The Only Thing We Have to Fear is Fear Itself Speech Analysis by

    essay on fear is fear itself

  6. Fear Essay

    essay on fear is fear itself


  1. Wizard

  2. Fear The Fear Itself 🤣🤣🤣

  3. Fear of success itself or fear of the process? #motivation #inspiration #viral

  4. Fear the fear itself! 😂😂 #animation #shorts #4kmeme

  5. Fear Itself

  6. Is all we have to fear, fear itself in Warhammer The Old World?


  1. The Only Thing We Have to Fear Is Fear Itself

    It was the fear itself that needed to be exorcised. FDR's predecessor, Herbert Hoover, also often spoke in this way. By this metaphor, the nation was an invalid who had been afflicted with a mental problem, a paralysis of action. Its thinking somehow had to be turned around, toward a positive confidence. By changing the patient's thinking ...

  2. "Only Thing We Have to Fear Is Fear Itself": FDR's First Inaugural Address

    May He protect each and every one of us. May He guide me in the days to come. Source: Franklin D. Roosevelt, Inaugural Address, March 4, 1933, as published in Samuel Rosenman, ed., The Public Papers of Franklin D. Roosevelt, Volume Two: The Year of Crisis, 1933 (New York: Random House, 1938), 11-16.

  3. Who Said, 'We Have Nothing to Fear Except Fear Itself'?

    Then, in the seventeenth century, the English writer who brought Montaigne's new invention of the essay form to England and made it his own, Francis Bacon, wrote in his 1623 book De Augmentis Scientiarum: 'Nil terribile nisi ipse timor', or 'Nothing is terrible except fear itself.'. Then, in the nineteenth century and in yet another country, the United States, Henry David Thoreau ...

  4. The Only Thing We Have to Fear is Fear Itself

    It follows the full text transcript of Franklin Delano Roosevelt's First Inaugural Address, also called The Only Thing We Have to Fear is Fear Itself speech, delivered on the East Portico of the U.S. Capitol at Washington D.C. - March 4, 1933. I am certain that my fellow Americans expect that on my induction into the Presidency I will address ...

  5. Franklin D. Roosevelt: 'The only thing we have to fear is fear itself

    The only thing we have to fear is fear itself. Franklin D. Roosevelt once famously said, 'The only thing we have to fear is fear itself.'. This powerful quote has since become embedded in our collective consciousness, reminding us of the importance of conquering our fears. At its core, this quote suggests that fear can often be more crippling ...

  6. The Only Thing We Have To Fear Is Fear Itself Meaning

    The quote is from President Franklin D. Roosevelt's 1933 inaugural address from 1933. Here is the whole quote: So, first of all, let me assert my firm belief that the only thing we have to fear is ...

  7. Franklin D. Roosevelt's First Inauguration, 1933

    The address is most remembered for FDR's statement that "the only thing we have to fear is fear itself," but it is also a declaration of war against economic hardship, a call to Americans to work together to face "the dark hour," and a notice of his intention to reorganize and redirect government action. ... Search by Essay; Subscribe ...

  8. PDF The only thing we have to fear is the 'culture of fear' itself

    The only thing we have to fear is the 'culture of fear' itself NEW ESSAY: How human thought and action are being stifled by a regime of uncertainty. Frank Furedi Fear plays a key role in twenty-first century consciousness. Increasingly, we seem to engage with various issues through a narrative of fear. You could see this trend

  9. On the Nature of Fear

    The experience itself, in my model, is the result of pattern completion of one's personal fear schema, which gives rise to some variant of what you have come to know as one of the many varieties ...

  10. Why do we say "The only thing we have to fear is fear itself"?

    Thoreau, in turn, was most likely inspired by earlier writers including French philosopher Michel de Montaigne who wrote, "Nothing is terrible except fear itself" in 1580; and Francis Bacon and The Duke of Wellington who are both on record as saying "The only thing I am afraid of is fear," Bacon in 1623 and Wellington in c.1832.

  11. What did FDR mean by "The only thing we have to fear is fear itself

    We should be afraid of fear because this is what it does to us. When we fear, we cannot think properly or act properly, so fear is a greater enemy than any real enemy could be. It cripples people ...

  12. Fear Is Nothing to Be Feared

    FDR's prescription, that 'fear itself' should be feared, is problematic. First, as the late existentialist psychologist Rollo May had pointed out, the construct of 'fear itself' is ...

  13. The Mastery of Fear

    It is only love that will solve the problem. of basic importance in mastering fear is making a practice of looking fairly and squarly at the object of our fear. 24 "Ridicule is the master cure of fear" 25. A great deal of fear can be overcome by living a clar and upright moral life 26. Fear is mastered through love.

  14. Bibliographical Essay on Fear

    Since this initial flurry of publications, the study of fear has widened its purview to consider terrorism, conspiracy theories, postmodernism, the arts, and political and ethical philosophy—to name the major topics of this essay. Perhaps the most consistent conclusion of these recent studies has been that fear is a plague within our society ...

  15. Essay on Fear

    500 Words Essay on Fear Introduction. Fear is a universal human experience, an essential part of our biological makeup that has evolved over millions of years. It is a complex emotion that can be both protective and paralyzing, serving as a warning signal for danger while also potentially hindering personal growth and exploration. This essay ...

  16. The only thing we have to fear is the 'culture of fear' itself NEW

    Wednesday 4 April 2007 The only thing we have to fear is the 'culture of fear' itself NEW ESSAY: How human thought and action are being stifled by a regime of uncertainty. Frank Furedi Fear plays a key role in twenty-first century consciousness. Increasingly, we seem to engage with various issues through a narrative of fear.

  17. The Only Thing We Have to Fear Is … Fearing Fear Itself

    In February, headlines such as " Excessive Fear of the Wuhan Coronavirus Can Be Dangerous " and " Fear Itself Is the Biggest Coronavirus Danger " were commonplace. Among politicians, the ...

  18. 'The only thing we have to fear is fear itself': FDR's ...

    Franklin D. Roosevelt was the 32nd president of the United States | FDR Library via Wikimedia Commons. "The only thing we have to fear is fear itself," the famous quote of Franklin D. Roosevelt (FDR) resonated with me in these days of fear over the Coronavirus infection. While researching on this, I came across the film Warm Springs which ...

  19. Fear: Definition, Effects, and Overcoming

    Table of Contents. Webster's dictionary defines fear as "an unpleasant, sometimes strong emotion caused by an anticipation or awareness of danger" or "anxious concern" Fear is a feeling that causes agitation and anxiety mostly caused by presence or imminence of danger. It is a state or condition marked by feeling of agitation or anxiety.

  20. Opinion

    ESSAY; Fear Itself. William Safire. Oct. 21, 1987; Share full article. ... ''The only thing we have to fear is fear itself'' - and reviewing the latest evidence of continuing prosperity, from low ...

  21. The only thing we have to fear is the 'culture of fear' itself NEW

    PDF | On Jan 1, 2007, Frank Furedi published The only thing we have to fear is the 'culture of fear' itself NEW ESSAY: How human thought and action are being stifled by a regime of uncertainty ...

  22. The Only Thing We Have to Fear, Is Fear Itself

    In the end, it is ironic that what we only need to really fear is fear itself. As a person, there are probably a million things you would like to do but are too afraid to try. Maybe you think that it would be amazing to go skydiving - yet you are afraid of heights! Maybe you get an opportunity to study overseas - yet you are afraid of ...

  23. Subconscious Fear: The Role of the Lower Brain

    Key points. Fear is essential for survival, but excessive fear can lead to anxiety disorders. Recent research reveals the cerebellum's role in fear regulation beyond motor control. Understanding ...

  24. The Only Thing We Have to Fear Is Fear Itself…and Crime: The Current

    In that time, the fear of crime literature has undergone a remarkable evolution, with researchers examining it among varied populations, in many contexts, and from different theoretical perspectives. The purpose of the current work is to provide a brief review of the fear of crime literature, with specific focus on how the research has evolved.