Learned Fears, the Fears You Acquire from Others

Many of your fears are learned. Sometimes, your parents or the environment transmit them to you. Is there a way to get rid of them?
Learned Fears, the Fears You Acquire from Others
Valeria Sabater

Written and verified by the psychologist Valeria Sabater.

Last update: 15 November, 2021

Learned fears aren’t integrated into your brain. In fact, they’re projected onto you by others, especially your parents. They’re anxieties that you see reflected around you and that, in one way or another, become imprinted on you.

Humans, like other living organisms, are “designed” to learn from their environment and survive. For example, if your father fears dogs, you’ll learn early on that you may need to protect yourself from these animals.

Psychologist John B. Watson claimed that all fears are learned, not innate. Some experts don’t agree. Nevertheless, it’s clear that you reach adulthood with many more fears than you came into the world with. Furthermore, when we talk about fears, we don’t just mean of things like spiders, heights, rats, or clowns.

In fact, many of your fears are defined by invisible entities. For example, fear of failing, of not being liked, of being abandoned, of failing others, etc.  You learn many of these fears through your relationships with those around you.

A man looking at his shadow.

What are learned fears?

Woody Allen said that your fears are your best friends. They never trick you into leaving them. After all, what would you do without them? You’d actually be doing a lot better if you could eliminate many of your fears. This is because they poison your brain with doubts and insecurities that have been limiting your potential from childhood.

Why does this happen? These learned fears are a result of evolution. To adapt to an environment, it isn’t enough to respond to the instincts that tell you to avoid dark places or flee from predators. In fact, you continuously need to integrate new information and data that allows you to function on a daily basis.

The problem is that many of your learned fears are neither useful nor practical. This is because they originate from an irrational process. For example, what we explained above on the fear of dogs. This shows how cognitive and socially learned fears impact the phylogenetic mechanisms of fear conditioning.

Let’s find out how and why this happens.

The attitudes and behaviors of attachment figures

Parents might tell their children that something is dangerous and they shouldn’t touch it. Although babies don’t understand language, they still absorb fears from their parents through their expressions, attitudes, and behaviors.

The behaviors of your attachment figures are fundamental and essential for your safety, well-being, and confidence. But they can also transmit fear and anxiety. This can be evidenced in situations of armed conflict, where young children develop fears of certain sounds or images when they see their relatives’ reactions to them.

Furthermore, young children are experts in non-verbal language. For instance, if they see their mother fearing birds, they’ll learn that birds are dangerous.

Learning to fear what others fear is part of the brain’s repertoire

You might think that these learned fears occur because, as a child, you’re unable to rationalize your fears. On this basis, you’d think that, on reaching adulthood, you’d understand that many of those fears are neither logical nor practical.

However, this isn’t always easy. Freeing yourself from these fears isn’t like taking a backpack off. Columbia University conducted studies that suggest that learned fears become a part of your brain’s repertoire. In other words, learned fears are part of your social learning and you’re programmed to carry them out.

Areas of the brain, like the amygdala, the medial prefrontal cortex, and the superior temporal sulcus, are associated with the social cognition of fear. Therefore, as much as you might like to remove the shadow of those learned fears, it isn’t something you can do quickly, as these irrational fears are injected into your neural foundations.

A baby crying.

How to free yourself from learned fears

Being afraid is normal. After all, fear has guaranteed our survival. Nevertheless, many of these fears are irrational. They can even take over and dominate your life.

How can you manage these learned fears? Just trying to “be brave” isn’t enough, as you’re dealing with something that’s been becoming increasingly strong. You can try to either rationalize or tackle these fears.

You need to filter them from your mind and understand that you learned them from others. Then, you need to approach the threatening stimuli. You may need to be guided by an expert in this field for this step. Only then will you be able to free yourself from the prison of fears.

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.