Written by David Heitz | Published on October 16, 2013
Medically Reviewed by George Krucik, MD, MBA on October 16, 2013

What Is Fear?

Fear is a natural response to a disturbing or threatening situation. It can be helpful. For example, fear can motivate a person to respond to danger or to make necessary changes in his or her life. But not all fear is appropriate or healthy.

Fear occurs among people of all ages. It occurs more frequently among children and the elderly. Children have a more difficult time with fear because their coping mechanisms are not fully developed. Elderly people may experience it more often as they cope with physical ailments and problems associated with age. 

When a fear becomes irrational, it is known as a phobia. A phobia is a fear of something that is not a real threat, or that is not as great a threat as the person believes. Unlike phobias, simple fears do not usually require medication or extensive treatment.

What Are the Symptoms of Fear?

The body produces adrenaline when it feels fear. This causes symptoms such as muscle contraction, increased heart rate, and sweating. 

Fear can motivate a person to take action. It can even give him or her extra energy to do so. Overcoming fear can teach someone to be courageous and self-sufficient. At the same time, it can impair thinking, so there is a fine line between a healthy fear and a phobia.

Fear in Children

Fear is very common in children and is a natural part of development.

Children are often startled by objects and animals they are not familiar with. They may want to stay indoors. Fear may manifest as shyness when a youngster begins to socialize with other children.

A good strategy for helping children to overcome their fears is to help them take small steps toward confronting those fears. For example, if a fall causes a child to fear roller skates, a parent might encourage the child to simply watch others roller skate from the sidelines the next time. Eventually, the child may want to put the skates back on and try again. This process is known as desensitization (American Academy of Pediatrics, 2013).

Young children are also often afraid of the dark. This fear is usually overcome quickly. Being left alone is another common fear that children exhibit as toddlers but eventually work past.

Teenagers generally have fears about social acceptance. As they become more confident, the fears diminish. At any age, dealing with something for the first time can cause fear.

Other fears present bigger challenges for parents. Giving children the tools they need to feel more confident about their well-being is the best way to prevent or combat fear in children.

It is important to talk to children about their fears. Vocalizing fears is often a primary coping mechanism for children. 

Fear in Adults

In adults, the elderly often experience fear. Aging can be a frightening process because it presents people with new situations and challenges. For example, older Americans often develop a fear of falling as their mobility decreases. Such fears can be alleviated when they have the right walking aids, such as a rolling walker or a cane.

Childhood fears that have not been dealt with can become phobias in adults. Research also shows that children sometimes replicate fears they see their parents exhibit (Mayo Clinic, 2013).

In both children and adults, physical disabilities and limitations can cause fears.

When to Seek Medical Help

When a fear begins to interfere with the pattern of daily life—affecting work, school or parenting, for example—it may have become a phobia. Seek medical attention if you or your child cannot learn to cope with fears, or if fear induces anxiety.

New research  indicates that mental health professionals may eventually be  better able to understand the risk factors and underlying mechanisms behind fear, including what triggers it and when to consider it an abnormal reaction (Schmitz, A., et al., 2012).

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