Fear is one of the basic emotions (joy, sadness, anger, disgust, surprise). It is an innate reaction pattern with a protective and warning function that we share with our mammalian relatives.

(A distinction is often made between anxiety and fear. Fear is then seen as a general, undirected feeling, not leading to concrete actions. Fear is said to relate to a specific object, creature or situation and to trigger the attack-or-flight response. Anxiety is said to come “from within”, and fear “from the outside world”. However, this distinction cannot be consistently maintained in science or everyday life and, therefore, should not play a role here).

Symptoms of anxiety

Anxiety triggers immediate physical reactions: Acceleration of breathing and pulse, sweating, and constriction of the pupils – all sensible components of the innate protective response. Muscles receive more oxygen and nutrients, and the senses are sharpened. The sympathetic nervous system mediates these reactions. Even the seemingly nonsensical paralysis (rigidity) is beneficial because many predators respond to movement. Fear is thus the opposite of curiosity (exploratory behaviour), which is accompanied by positively perceived arousal.

Other characteristics of fear, on the other hand, are socially mediated and culturally shaped: Fear as a force (increasing attention: driving a car), pleasure in fear (horror films, bungee jumping) and finally, fear as a symptom of stress (overload signal; panic attack).

Anxiety – psychology

Sigmund Freud associated anxiety with the three-tiered structure of the human psyche (id – ego – superego). In the ego, he describes the “real” fear of the outside world. He assigned the fear of conscience to the superego and the neurotic fear of the strength of the drives to the id. He interpreted pathological anxiety as an expression of deep-rooted conflicts between basic human needs (e.g. striving for autonomy, reproductive instinct) and the demands of one’s social environment (e.g. internalized moral norms that prohibit these basic drives).

Personality psychology separates general anxiety as a personality trait from anxiety as a short-term state. (A permanent overproduction of stress hormones in anxiety makes people more prone to anxiety in general and physical illnesses).

In learning psychology, anxiety is a subjective, vegetative and motor response to a threatening stimulus.

Anxiety – conditioning

Fear can be learned through conditioning. In classical conditioning, a stimulus with a natural reaction is combined with a neutral stimulus.
Once conditioning has occurred, the neutral stimulus triggers a natural reaction. In this way
This way, for example, a harmless sound can lead to fear. In operant conditioning, certain behaviours, sensations or bodily sensations are associated with a fearful stimulus.

Anxiety – neurobiology

Researchers can now explain what traces learned fear leaves behind and how it can reappear later – possibly even in the following generation.


Various areas of the brain play a role in the development of fear and anxiety, foremost the amygdala. The amygdala is active in all anxiety states, including anxiety disorders such as phobias. It reacts involuntarily, incredibly quickly, but not overly accurately. The signalling pathway via the amygdala, through which sensory impressions are only “fuzzily” represented, is necessary for a rapid reaction and lasts only twelve milliseconds. The amygdala accelerates heartbeat and breathing, and it increases blood pressure and the stress hormone cortisol. Subjectively, feelings of anxiety arise. Nightmares may also be triggered by spontaneous activity of the amygdala, as are the undirected feelings of anxiety. The amygdala receives information from several brain areas and transmits signals to brain structures that control reactions such as blood pressure, the release of stress hormones or startle response.


Parts of the cerebral cortex are powerfully supplied with blood during fear and can generate fear there. The cerebral cortex can only distinguish sensory impressions – including danger – after it has matured, which takes 7-12 months in humans. (At this age, “strangeness” sets in with small children.) Areas of the cerebral cortex responsible for processing sensory stimuli are even a prerequisite for fear reactions, e.g. the auditory cortex – without auditory stimuli, there is no auditory fear reaction.

The cerebral cortex reacts more slowly than the amygdala but processes significantly more information and is, therefore, more accurate in its evaluation and reaction. It can solve more complex problems, but integrating them takes twice as long. The memory function of the cerebral cortex is also essential: for learning fear reactions.


The so-called hypothalamus is a core area that also plays a vital role in developing fear. Psychotropic drugs also target it, controlling the sympathetic nervous system and triggering the release of stress hormones. In this way, the organism is put in a state of readiness to defend itself.

The so-called “fear memory” is a decisive reason why fear can be burnt into the brain persistently and involuntarily and, under certain circumstances, can have agonizing effects for a lifetime. Moreover, fear conditioning involves the activation of genes, as other learning processes do.

So let’s keep in mind: fear is not a disease but an innate protective and warning function with several levels. The emotional and behavioural level is subject to learning processes and thus socially and culturally influenced.

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