The Differences Between Functional and Pathological Fear

There's nothing as common as experiencing fear. However, at what point does this emotion become maladaptive and turn into a problem? Find out here.
The Differences Between Functional and Pathological Fear
Valeria Sabater

Written and verified by the psychologist Valeria Sabater.

Last update: 01 June, 2023

The main difference between functional and pathological fear lies in the individual’s quality of life. Many people see their psychosocial performance restricted by a phobia or maladaptive anxiety that changes them and makes them feel different. Indeed, irrational and persistent fear can make us captives in a world full of unusual threats.

According to a study published in Psychological Medicine, the epidemiology of phobias in the world ranges from 5.5 to 7.4 percent.

Pathological fears are a recurring mental health problem. What’s more, in many cases, these disproportionate emotions form the basis of anxiety disorders and post-traumatic stress.

Women are more likely to develop phobias than men.

The differences between functional and pathological fear

Fear is a natural emotion and an amazing survival mechanism. As a matter of fact, it’s thanks to this psychophysical experience that we’ve advanced as a species, overcoming threats via the most diverse strategies. An article published in the Harvard Review of Psychiatry claims we’re biologically wired to act in these risky situations.

Fleeing, freezing, or coping responses are effective for adapting to environments that are complex or challenging. However, the problem that abounds today is that many of our fears don’t respond to tangible or rational threats.

This is when maladaptive and sometimes even problematic fears kick in. To better understand this nuance, we’re going to explore the main differences between functional and pathological fear.

You might also like to read Five of the Most Common Fears

1. Intensity: from proportionality to excess

Functional fear is a normal psychophysical mechanism that emerges in threatening situations. The physiological response is proportionate and adjusted to the event. As such, there’s a balance. Thanks to this, responses are set in motion which allows the event to be successfully dealt with.

However, the same isn’t true of dysfunctional fear. Pathological fears cause an intense and disproportionate response to be emitted that isn’t adjusted to the situation. What’s more, in these experiences, emotions of anguish, terror, and bewilderment remain for a long time and take a while to extinguish.

2. Duration: the emotional storm of pathological fear

One of the main distinctions between normal and pathological fear is its duration. While functional fear is always transitory and the psychophysiological reactions disappear at the same time as the threat, it’s not the same in pathological fear.

In fact, pathological fear triggers a response of great intensity and duration. It’s not usually extinguished when the adverse event disappears. In many cases, the individual is perpetually on the alert and dominated by this emotion. It can make them respond to the most unexpected and arbitrary stimuli.

An article written by the University of Oxford (UK) describes the mechanisms of this dysregulated experience. It claims that it’s due to excessive activation of the cerebral amygdala.

3. The impact on the functioning of the individual

You’ve probably experienced intense, dysfunctional, and disproportionate fear. So, you know what happens. When pathological fear controls you, your behavior stops being functional and you lose control over yourself. Life becomes limiting and you stop exposing yourself to certain situations.

Therefore, while normal fears are adaptive responses, dysfunctional kinds completely alter your social, work, personal functionality, etc. Moreover, the impact is immense and long-lasting if action mechanisms are put into operation.

4. The origin of fear

Pathological fears can start from a specific trigger and spread to other foci arbitrarily. It’s frequently seen among patients with social anxiety. A recent investigation published in the journal, PLOS One states the high prevalence of this condition in the younger population.

These youngsters tend to start with specific fears such as speaking in public. Gradually, they develop more of them, such as talking on the phone or going to social events. While functional fears have an identifiable cause, pathological fears can expand in a disorderly way.

5. The level of consciousness between functional and pathological fear

Every time you experience functional fear, you have a realistic awareness of the situation and what’s happening. It could be said that you have everything under control. You understand the situation and why it’s happening. On the other hand, if you experience dysfunctional and irrational fear you experience a state of great emotional distress.

At these moments, your consciousness or perception of reality is ‘kidnapped’ by your amygdala and negatively valenced emotions. It’s impossible to think clearly, and you respond instinctively and thoughtlessly. These are complex and difficult situations to handle. Moreover, it’s often not even possible to clarify what you’re afraid of.

6. Associated physiological responses

One essential difference between functional and pathological fear concerns the physiological and cognitive responses that trigger them. They’re as follows:

Functional fear

  • Dizziness.
  • Shaking and chills.
  • Sweating.
  • Tachycardia.
  • Muscle tension.
  • Pressure in the chest.
  • Stomach ache.
  • Need to escape.
  • Feeling in control of the situation.

Dysfunctional fear

  • Dizziness.
  • Sweating.
  • Shaking and chills.
  • Panic attacks.
  • Pressure in the chest.
  • Development of phobias.
  • Need to escape.
  • Digestive alterations.
  • Tachycardia for hours.
  • Irrational thoughts.
  • Persistent muscle tension.
  • Constant feeling of alarm.
  • Problems making decisions.
  • Need for isolation, flight, or fight.
  • Lack of control.

7. Pathological fear and anticipatory anxiety

Anticipatory anxiety is the substrate of many irrational and pathological fears. In these cases, the individual always thinks the worst, prepares for the most catastrophic, and, before they know it, their world is filled with threats. The University of Wisconsin–Madison (USA), describes this psychological reality.

In these cases, there’s the lingering shadow of a possible future threat. The constant anguish means the individual avoids employing coping strategies, and their mind gets stuck in its feelings of fear and feeds them back. This builds a prison of anticipatory anxiety.

On the other hand, with functional fear, the individual knows how to handle their fears and associated thoughts. They rationalize them and effectively mitigate the weight of anxiety, shaping more adaptive responses.

The most frequent pathological fears are phobias. In fact, these are fairly common clinical realities.

The most frequent pathological fears

Functional fears can sometimes escalate to pathological fears. It appears frequently among those who’ve suffered adverse experiences. For example, after a car accident, an individual may fear taking the car for a while. But, some people develop an agonizing fear of simply getting into a car, even if they don’t drive.

The most frequent pathological fears have the anatomy of multiple psychological disorders that gradually develop and can start in adolescence. They’re as follows:

  • Phobias.
  • Panic disorder.
  • Anxiety disorders.
  • Obsessive-compulsive disorder.
  • Social anxiety disorder (social phobia).
  • Generalized Anxiety Disorder (GAD).
  • Post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD).

Seek professional help if you experience these signs

  • You’ve experienced several panic attacks.
  • You’re not sleeping well and your diet has changed.
  • Both your social and work life are limited by your fears.
  • You use avoidance behaviors on a daily basis.
  • Fears completely dominate your mind. You no longer think of anything else.
  • You feel like you’re no longer in control of your reality.

You might be interested to read Is it Possible to Die of Fear?

The universe of fear is complex and each individual experiences fear in a different way. The most important thing is to be aware that it’s necessary to ask for help if your functionality and social performance are limited.

In short, the differences between functional and pathological fear draw a clear line between mental well-being and psychological discomfort. Don’t hesitate to ask for specialized attention. Exposure therapies, cognitive-behavioral therapy, or strategic brief therapy are effective treatments.

All cited sources were thoroughly reviewed by our team to ensure their quality, reliability, currency, and validity. The bibliography of this article was considered reliable and of academic or scientific accuracy.

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