Primal Fear in the Modern Age

The fear response and today’s abstract, delayed, or otherwise nonlethal threats.

Posted Jun 11, 2019

Eric Kilby/CC BY-SA 2.0
Source: Source: Eric Kilby/CC BY-SA 2.0

Ironically, for all of the complications it brings into our lives, fear may be our most straightforward emotion. Fear prioritizes the avoidance of danger at all costs—it’s as simple as that. 

This is fear’s primary function, and it’s a crucial one, mobilizing us to respond effectively to life-or-death situations. In Emotions Revealed: Recognizing Faces and Feelings to Improve Communication and Emotional Life, Paul Ekman examines fear as one of our core affects, or preprogrammed emotional patterns. “An immediate threat of harm focuses our attention, mobilizing us to cope with the danger. If we perceive an impending threat, our worry about what might happen can protect us, warning us, making us more vigilant.” Fear also causes physical responses: “…hands get colder… breathe more deeply and rapidly… begin to sweat… feel trembling or tightening of the muscles in your arms and legs… feel your face or body beginning to move back…” Finally, fear activates specific facial expressions and vocalizations, which humans intuitively recognize, and can send a warning or recruit help in a fearful situation.

All of this comes at a cost. Fear is your brain hitting its panic button. Fear pushes your whole system into overdrive because, as far as your fear is concerned, there are only two outcomes to the current situation: either get of here alive, right now, and you can take a nap later, or it won’t matter because you’re dead.

But that begs the question: how does fear work when the situation isn’t actually life-or-death? 

Fear did not evolve to deal with abstract, delayed, exaggerated, or otherwise nonlethal threats to our wellbeing. A horror movie, a panicky newspaper headline, a final exam, dropping off your child at summer camp, or even just contemplating the essential meaninglessness of human life in a vast and uncaring universe: all of these can seem just as threatening as a saber-toothed tiger, because our primal fear response isn’t sophisticated enough to tell the difference.

Actually, the heightened awareness and hypersensitivity caused by fear is entirely useless in many situations, and often counter-productive. Ekman distinguishes two ways of experiencing fear, depending on whether the threat is immediate or impending: “...immediate threat usually leads to action (freezing or flight) that deals with the threat, while worry about an impending threat leads to increased vigilance and muscular tension. Second, the response to an immediate threat is often analgesic, reducing pain sensations, while worry about an impending threat magnifies pain.” 

Fear still does its job effectively in short-term, high-stakes scenarios. But if the threat persists, and we’re powerless to take action, “…if there is nothing to do but wait to see if one survives, then people are likely to feel terror.” Over long periods of time, sustained terror can lead to physiological problems as diverse as panic attacks, irritable bowel syndrome, and post-traumatic stress disorder

If you suffer from an anxiety disorder, particularly obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD), then you’re probably familiar with the consequences of prolonged fear: hypersensitivity, alienation, paranoia, exhaustion. Any threat can trigger the short-term fear response—but where a generalized anxiety disorder heightens and extends these effects, OCD, goes one step further—it tries to reduce the terror using cognitive problem-solving and reappraisal of the situation, even taking preventative actions. All of that makes sense, but unfortunately, prolonged and irrational terror can’t be resolved through rational thought or behavioral changes. With OCD, protective actions become habitual, combining with and reinforcing anxiety; and even thoughtful and rational problem-solving can misfire if applied to an irresolvable problem, dragging the sufferer into circular, frustrated thinking that easily spirals into obsession.

Fear, in theory, is easy to understand. It is a simple routine to expedite problem-solving in a simplistic, life-or-death context. But the psychological chain reactions triggered by fear are often anything but simple. Our world today is full of complicated new problems that confound our reptilian fear response. When you try to reconcile prehistoric freeze-or-flight instincts with intelligent problem-resolution strategies in response to complicated threats that challenge and confound both of these systems, the result is often anxiety and obsession. 

But this is no reason to be discouraged. Understanding the purpose and function of fear is the first step to diagnosing and correcting the problems it causes.


Ekman, Paul.  Emotions Revealed: Recognizing Faces and Feelings to Improve Communication and Emotional Life.  2nd edition.  St. Martins, NY, 2007.

Kahneman, Daniel.  Thinking, Fast and Slow.  Farrar, Straus and Giroux, NY, 2011.

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