The 4 Stages of Fear

The 4 Stages of Fear

Last update: 08 November, 2015

Fear is a universal feeling. We have all felt it at some point. It is characterized by a feeling of anxiety caused by a perceived threat. Even though it’s often considered a “negative” emotion, fear also has a positive side, because it protects us.

Fear appears to warn us of danger. This puts us on alert mode and makes us launch the necessary resources to cope with a situation if we think we can. If we don’t think we can,  fear also causes us to escape or take flight to get away from the situation.

“Fear is natural for the wise, and knowing how to defeat it is brave.
Alonso de Ercilla and Zúñiga

It’s important that we keep in mind that fear itself isn’t a problem, but rather a feeling that’s simply indicating the existence of a problem.

But what happens if fear becomes irrational? That is to say, when we project this feeling towards an object that paralyzes, that we can’t control and also can’t overcome. In order to obtain answers, we’ll explain the four stages we experience when we feel fear.

Stage 1: Imagination

Often when we feel fear, we start imagining things. We let ourselves get carried away by our exaggerated expectations of what could happen. Often, we’re creating in our minds a scenario worse than the real one. We get ahead of the real events, generating fear and anxiety for ourselves.

Why do we do this? As we previously said, fear prepares us to protect ourselves and face a difficult situation. When we start imagining in an exaggerated way, this means that our mind is shuffling through possibilities that may happen. It does this in order to prepare us to face them. 

The worse the situation we imagine is, the better we’ll be able to face it, considering we have the sufficient resources.

Our mind works quickly, and we can’t avoid thinking of the worst. This may even save our lives in many situations.

Stage 2: Fear

The second stage of fear is fear itself. We have already imagined what can happen, the possible alternatives, how we could escape that situation…now comes the fear.

Fear manifests itself in your thoughts, but also in your body. When fear arrives, you start to hyperventilate, your heart beats faster, your voice gets higher and your body fills with nerves. You won’t be able to imagine scenarios or even think anymore. You’ll only be able to feel and prepare to act. Nothing else.

An example of fear can be stage fright, the fear of speaking in front of a crowd. We think we’ll mess up, that we’ll make mistakes, and that everyone will laugh at us. We create expectations and imagine the thousands of possible alternatives. This produces a feedback within us that keeps us from freeing ourselves of this fear. Many times this is thanks to our insecurities.

Stage 3: Paralysis and acceleration

When we focus only on what we feel, without paying attention to our thoughts, we can block our minds. This is the third stage of fear. We can’t think anymore. That’s what everyone is afraid of, being paralyzed by fear.

This situation usually causes a feeling of hopelessness. Often times, we don’t know how to get out of it. But, what can we do? Wait. When fear paralyses us, we have to wait for it to pass. It’s not a sensation that will go away quickly. It will take a few minutes. Our body has sounded the alarm, and now it needs some time to understand that there’s no threat.

Sometimes, instead of paralysis, we experience its opposite: acceleration. This is when we start to act silly. An example is when we cover ourselves with the bed sheets or look in the closet for monsters. If we think it through, what exactly are our bed sheets going to protect us from? We know it’s ridiculous, but in the moment, fear is controlling us and we’re not aware of what we’re doing.

Stage 4: Creation of memories

Imagination leads us to pure fear, and this can paralyze or accelerate us. But, what’s the last step in the chain of events of fear? Memories. Everything is recorded in our minds, especially the events that were stressful or intensely emotional.

If we had an unpleasant experience with a partner, every time we get close to someone who might be a new romantic partner, this previous memory will activate. Then what happens? Those memories will determine our actions, while also protecting us from perceived danger. A danger we have already experienced and want to avoid.

These memories can make us miss out on opportunities. That’s why they’re not always positive. Because yes, it’s good to learn. Maybe acting this way could lead us from harm’s way, but it can’t make us avoid it forever.

We have to try to overcome our fears and not let them control us and determine our actions. If we have stage fright, let us draw willpower to overcome it. Fear only exists in our minds, and we have the power to overcome it.

It’s normal to be afraid. It’s even good to feel it, but we can’t allow fear to determine our lives. We need to learn to overcome it. Remember that we can all learn from our fears. They simply show us the existence of a problem and the possibility of solving it. Don’t make fear your enemy.

This text is provided for informational purposes only and does not replace consultation with a professional. If in doubt, consult your specialist.