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Is Fear Learned or Innate?

image of a boy hiding behind cushions on a sofa in fear

Is Fear Learned or Innate?

We’ve all experienced fear at some point in our lives. It is one of the most basic and natural human emotions. 

Fear happens when we sense danger and our brain instantly reacts, causing an activation of the nervous system and physical responses such as increased heart rate, rapid breathing, and increased blood pressure.

A fear or phobia can fall into four main categories: (1) fear of the natural environment; (2) fear related to animals; (3) fear related to medical treatments or issues; and lastly, (4) fear related to specific situations.


Where do the names of phobias come from?

The names for different phobias are formed by using a Greek word as a prefix at the beginning of the word. The Greek word represents the type of fear and then, the word is completed by adding the suffix ‘-phobia’.

For example: 

  • ‘Arachnophobia’ > is made up of the Greek word for spider is ‘arachne’ and ‘-phobia’
  • ‘Claustrophobia’ > is made up of the Greek word for a lock or bolt (‘claustrum’) and ‘-phobia’
  • ‘Acrophobia’ > is made up of the Greek word for the summit or at the topmost (‘akron’) and ‘-phobia’


Is fear learned or an instinct?

Most fears are not automatic or innate, instead, they are learned or developed.

Fears relating to animals (such as snakes or spiders) or the natural environment around us (such as the dark, heights or thunderstorms) are typically developed at a young age. They can be influenced by our environment, culture and upbringing. A child can build upon cues exhibited by parents and those around them and thus, a phobia can form.

A fear or phobia can be learned through direct experience with a threat, for example, encountering a snake as a child. Or, fear can be learned through social means, such as verbal warnings (“Don’t go near that snake; it’s dangerous!”) or through observing others.

But, some fears, such as the fear of snakes or spiders, are predisposed and due to evolution. Since the Paleolithic period, we have always learned to be fearful of snakes and spiders and not pick them up as they can be venomous and dangerous.

Many fears work similarly to instinct. From childhood we’re equipped with survival instincts that are necessary, helping us respond to fear when we sense danger or feel unsafe.

Fear helps protect us.


Are we born with fears?

There are two innate fears that transcend all different human societies, cultures and upbringings. So, in answer to the question, yes, we are all born with two universal fears: the fear of loud noises and the fear of falling.

These universal fears are purely survival-based. 

  1. The fear of falling is a natural instinct that is necessary for survival
  2. The fear of loud noises activates our fight or flight response. When we hear a loud noise, we react instantly by being startled or ducking down to protect ourselves. This physical response is necessary as a loud noise could signal something dangerous might be around the corner.

Fears and phobias are a very natural part of being human. The only problem arises when a phobia stops you from doing things that you would otherwise like to do. If you’re struggling or uncertain about how to deal with a phobia, then it might be helpful to seek additional support. A therapist can help you manage feelings of being overwhelmed.

Understanding your fear or phobia is the first step to overcoming it.


Contact Future-Edge Therapy

If you would like help with fears and phobias and would like to speak to someone, please drop me (Bonita) a line on 07970 011 235, or fill out our online contact form and we’ll be in touch.