Fear is with us all the time. Anyone who hates flying will tell what what it is like to board a plane. The same feeling surfaces if we stand on a tall building with a fear of heights, when we have to take a test or face a difficult situation. The fear can lead to anxiety, procrastination and catastrophic thinking. These very specific fears are very well known but many people suffer from deep seated fear, often hidden, that drives their behaviour. As a therapist, I often deal with people with a generalised anxiety disorder or such disorders as agoraphobia. Often it is difficult to identify what the fear driving everything is and the people affected appear to be unable to pinpoint anything specific. This often makes the situation worse and can bring on panic attacks. One can describe it as the fear of the fear.
Medical experts tell us that the anxious feeling we get when we’re afraid is a standardised biological reaction. It’s pretty much the same set of body signals, whether we’re afraid of getting bitten by a dog, getting turned down for a date, getting our taxes done or if we cannot identity the cause. Fear, like all other emotions, is basically information. It offers us knowledge and understanding—if we choose to accept it—of our psycho-biological status. And according to various studies done, there are only five basic fears that we can attribute our fear to, out of which almost all of our other so-called fears are manufactured. These are:
Extinction—the fear of annihilation, of ceasing to exist. This is a more fundamental way to express it than just calling it “fear of death.” The idea of no longer being arouses a primary existential anxiety in all normal humans. Consider that panicky feeling you get when you look over the edge of a high building.
Mutilation—the fear of losing any part of our precious bodily structure; the thought of having our body’s boundaries invaded, or of losing the integrity of any organ, body part, or natural function. Anxiety about animals, such as bugs, spiders, snakes, and other creepy things arises from fear of mutilation.
Loss of Autonomy—the fear of being immobilised, paralysed, restricted, enveloped, overwhelmed, entrapped, imprisoned, smothered, or otherwise controlled by circumstances beyond our control. In physical form, it’s commonly known as claustrophobia, but it also extends to our social interactions and relationships.
Separation—the fear of abandonment, rejection, and loss of connectedness; of becoming a non-person—not wanted, respected, or valued by anyone else. The “silent treatment,” when imposed by a group or significant other, can have a devastating psychological effect on its target.
Ego-death—the fear of humiliation, shame, or any other mechanism of profound self-disapproval that threatens the loss of integrity of the Self; the fear of the shattering or disintegration of one’s constructed sense of lovability, capability, and worthiness.
Some other emotions we know by various popular names are just aliases for these primary fears. If you track them down to their most basic levels, the basic fears show through. Jealousy, for example, is an expression of the fear of separation, or devaluation: “She’ll value him more than she values me.” At its extreme, it can express the fear of ego-death: “I’ll be a worthless person.” Envy works the same way. Shame and guilt express the fear of—or the actual condition of—separation and even ego-death. The same is true for embarrassment and humiliation. Fear of rejection? That’s fear of separation, and probably also fear of ego-death. The terror many people have at the idea of having to speak in public is basically fear of ego-death. Fear of intimacy, or “fear of commitment,” is basically fear of losing one’s autonomy. Agoraphobia can be attributed to most if not all of the basic five as can a general anxiety disorder.
If we truly see fear and anxiety as information, then we can use the signals given by our body to understand and aid recovery.