Emotional Competency

Explore the Logic of Passion

Imminent Danger

Both fear and anxiety are provoked by danger. Fear is the response to a specific and immediate danger. Anxiety results from a non-specific concern or threat. Today many threats are psychological rather than physical, but the same primitive impulse often takes hold.


  1. Imminent danger,
  2. Personal security or pain is threatened,
  3. Concern for a future specific unpleasant event,
  4. Perceived loss of safety.

Root: from Old English fǣr, danger, sudden calamity.

Fear describes a specific and sudden danger to your physical well-being. When fear passes, we feel relief and often exhilaration. Our emotional brains react immediately to defend against a possible threat, then later we can comprehend the situation more fully and decide on the best action to take.

Related Terms

Synonyms for fear include: horror, fright, petrified, scared, shocked, hysterical, mortified, and terrified. The terms dread, alarm, and panic may refer to either anxiety or fear.

Origins, Archetypes, and the Plot of Fear

The purpose of fear is to protect us from danger. There are several unlearned triggers for fear, including:

  • something hurling rapidly toward you, such as a truck racing toward you
  • sudden loss of support, such as the floor giving way,
  • The threat of physical pain,

Also, there are any number of learned triggers for fear, such as receiving a letter from the IRS, being called to the principal's office, or entering a dark room. People also fear losing control, humiliation, shame, or insignificance. The common theme is avoiding threats.

Physical Reactions:

Fear causes a variety of reactions depending on the intensity, timing, and coping options available. The reactions include:

  • Freezing in place and feeling terror if we can't do anything to avoid the immediate danger.
  • Running or escaping from the immediate danger,
  • Sharply focusing our attention and mobilizing us to act to reduce or eliminate the danger when we can take effective action to cope with the threat, or
  • Panic, including shortness of breath, racing heartbeat, and the inability to focus on anything but worrying about the feared future event,
  • Fighting to destroy the object of our fear.

Fear also often causes cold hands, deeper and more rapid breathing, increased heart rate, increased blood pressure, sweating, dry mouth, and trembling or tightening of the muscles, especially in the arms and legs.

We estimate the risks and vulnerability of the threat almost instantly and then fight, freeze, focus, or flee based on this assessment.

Fear Conditioning

Fear conditioning is a particularly efficient form of classical conditioning. It is a quick and long lasting mechanism for acquiring and storing information about harmful or potentially harmful stimuli and situations. It is an ancient evolutionary solution to self-defense that has been observed in species as diverse a fruit flies, fish, baboons and humans. Once a fear trigger is learned, the response will remain the same indefinitely and resist efforts to extinguish it. The bias is toward action; it is better to react immediately to a false alarm than to ignore a real threat.

Courage, Bravery, and Valor

A courageous person understands danger, and chooses to overcome their fear and proceed to face the danger. It is not fearlessness, recklessness, or rashness. It is a well considered and brave decision to behave constructively despite the fear.

Related Moods and Traits

The term anxiety refers to the lengthy metal state of being worried for an unknown reason. Some researchers classify anxiety as a mood and others as a separate emotion.

Facial Expression:

Fear expressions send a danger warning to those close by. Screaming also sends a danger warning.

The facial expression of fear has these distinctive features:
  • Raised eyebrows,
  • tensed lower eyelids,
  • eyebrows drawn together,
  • Lips stretched horizontally,


We cope with fear by trying to flee or escape from the threat, fighting back, or focusing on ways to eliminate or reduce the threat. It helps to relax when the threat is not immediate.

Exploiting Vulnerability

Fear is such a powerful emotion that it is often exploited through fear-mongering. Unneeded, ineffective, or overpriced insurance policies, safety equipment, automobile undercoating, protection services, defensive actions, medications, and military expenditures are willingly purchased by people who are intimidated by a wide range of doomsayers. Terrorism is so effective because fear is so powerful. The fear of humiliation is strong and is a form of control often exploited by people as diverse as childhood playmates, advertisers, sales people, the boss, and tyrants.

Paths of Fear:

Events that can trigger our fear or anxiety are common and frequent occurrences. How we respond to those provocations and the choices we make critically affect our peace of mind, well being, and our lives. The following figure illustrates choices we have and paths we can take to either prolong or resolve our fears. Use this like you would any other map: 1) decide where you are now, 2) decide where you want to go, 3) choose the best path to get there, and 4) go down the chosen path.

Paths of Fear

This diagram is an example of a type of chart known by systems analysts as a state transition diagram. Each colored elliptical bubble represents a state of being that represents the way you are now. The labels on the arrows represent actions or events and the arrows show paths into or out of each state. You are at one place on this chart for one particular relationship or interaction at any particular time. Other people are likely to be in other places on the chart. This is similar to an ordinary road map where you plot where you are now, while other people are at other places on the same map. Begin the analysis at the green “OK” bubble, or wherever else you believe you are now.

OK: This is the beginning or neutral state. It corresponds to a person who is relaxed and not feeling fear or anxiety. The green color represents safety, tranquility, equanimity, and growth potential.

Perceived Threat: Something scary happens in your world that you perceive as a threat. This may be seeing a physical threat such as a snake coiling to strike or a car speeding toward you. It may also be a threat to your wellbeing, peace of mind, or social standing. A conceived threat—resulting from contemplating harmful future events—results in anxiety rather than fear.

Fear: Now you are frightened. Your heart is pounding, your breath is short, and your eyes are wide open. Your emotional brain has already begun to respond along two separate paths. The simple, fast, involuntary path causes you to immediately freeze, flee, fight, or focus. The slower but more thoughtful path causes you to feel afraid and allows you to begin to analyze your situation, create alternative responses, and make choices.

Flight: One possible reaction is to escape from the threat. This may be by looking away, running away, or simply ignoring the threat. In any case you are now avoiding the danger, at least for now.

Avoiding: Running away from some threats, such as a car hurling toward you as you walk across the street, is a very effective defense. But this strategy does not often work for more persistent threats, such as receiving a letter from the IRS, seeing a notice to foreclose and repossess your house, or suffering persistent abuse. Denying or avoiding a problem will not make it go away, and sooner or later you will have to confront the issue.

Confront: You decide to face the threat. You can decide to fight, or you can become composed and consider your constructive options.

Composed: You have calmed down, relaxed, gotten a grip on yourself, and now understand the situation in more depth. You have composed yourself and have decided to face the issue and resolve the threat in a rational, long lasting, and constructive way.

Resolve the Threat: Calmly analyze the threat, identify alternative approaches to resolving it, and take courageous and constructive action. This may involve paying the rent, answering the letter from the IRS, or confronting the abuse you are facing.

Relieved: You will feel relieved after the threat has been resolved. Now everything is OK again.

Fight: It is common to respond to a threat by fighting back. This may be a violent physical fight involving yelling, hitting, kicking, and other attacks and defenses. The fight might be passive-aggressive resistance such as refusing to respond and becoming silent. Or it may be an administrative defense such as speaking up for your rights and point of view, filing a complaint, or taking legal action to protect your rights. Of course once you start a fight, you may win, you may lose, or you may spend lots of time fighting.

Fighting: The fight can be short or long, violent and aggressive or passive and subtle, physical or administrative, and you can win or lose. In any case the loser generally feels resentment and humiliation and may retaliate or seek revenge in some new form.

Lose: If you lose the fight, the threat remains and it may have even increased. You are again fearful and you may also be resentful.

Win: If you win the fight, the threat may have been removed, or you may be fueling resentment or humiliation on the part of the loser. But for now you can become composed, relieved, and feel OK.

Focus: Often our fear focuses our senses and attention, first on the threat, then perhaps on possible responses. In either case we become focused on solving the problem.

Focused: When we are focused we are alert and can consider our alternatives. Soon we can comprehend the situation, and become composed so we can resolve the threat.

Freeze: We may freeze when we encounter a threat. This may work well for a deer wishing to blend into the surrounding forest landscape and escape notice from predator. It does not work well when a deer freezes in the headlights of an oncoming car. It also rarely works for people in the modern world.

Immobile: We are frozen and immobile We can't move and we can't even think what to do next. We face a critical choice here. We can summon our courage and focus our attention on responding constructively, or we can lose our nerve, become unglued, fall apart, and begin to panic.

Panic: Our heart is beating rapidly, we are out of breath, and we become fixated on the threat. We can not longer think rationally about what to do next. If we don't get a grip on ourselves and relax this can easily escalate our fears, or begin a long-lasing anxiety.

Anxious: Our mind is racing ahead conceiving of all the bad things that can happen to us. These conceived threats make us anxious and stressed. If we don't get a grip on ourselves we can become unhinged and suffer from panic attacks, phobias, post-traumatic stress disorder, obsessive compulsive disorder, and generalized anxiety.


Phobias are persistent, irrational fears. They are likely the result of learned responses and can be extinguished with effective therapy.

Images of Fear:


Here are some facial expressions of fear. Most are posed and a few are spontaneous.

Also, the famous painting “The Scream by Edvard Munch captures a memorable image of fear.


  • “Courage is not the absence of fear, but rather the judgment that something else is more important than fear.” ~ Ambrose Redmoon
  • “No passion so effectively robs the mind of all its powers of acting and reasoning as fear.” ~ Edmund Burke.


[laz] Passion and Reason: Making Sense of Our Emotions, by Richard S. Lazarus, Bernice N. Lazarus

[Ekm] Emotions Revealed: Recognizing Faces and Feelings to Improve Communication and Emotional Life, by Paul Ekman

[OCC] The Cognitive Structure of Emotions, by Andrew Ortony, Gerald L. Clore, Allan Collins

[Gol] Destructive Emotions: A Scientific Dialogue with the Dalai Lama, by Daniel Goleman

The Emotional Brain, by Joseph E. Ledoux

Authentic Happiness: Using the New Positive Psychology to Realize Your Potential for Lasting Fulfillment, by Martin Seligman

Nonviolent Communication: A Language of Life: Create Your Life, Your Relationships, and Your World in Harmony with Your Values, by Marshall B. Rosenberg, Arun Gandhi

What I learned from going blind in space, Chris Hadfield, TED talk, March 2014.

Fear, Sadness, Anger, Joy, Surprise, Disgust, Contempt, Anger, Envy, Jealousy, Fright, Anxiety, Guilt, Shame, Relief, Hope, Sadness, Depression, Happiness, Pride, Love, Gratitude, Compassion, Aesthetic Experience, Joy, Distress, Happy-for, Sorry-for, Resentment, Gloating, Pride, Shame, Admiration, Reproach, Love, Hate, Hope, Fear, Satisfaction, Relief, Fears-confirmed, Disappointment, Gratification, Gratitude, Anger, Remorse, power, dominance, stature, relationships

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