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Fear is a basic feeling that manifests itself in situations that are perceived as threatening as concern and unpleasant excitement. The trigger can be expected threats, such as physical integrity, self-respect or self-image .

Fear that is abnormally excessive or that cannot be rationally justified is called an anxiety disorder .


The term fear has developed from Indo-European * anghu " restricting " to Old High German angust since the 8th century . It is related to the Latin angustus or angustia for "tightness, constriction, distress" (see also angina ) and angor "choking". The word “fear” is also available as a word export in English, see German fear . It means something like existential fear. One speaks of "angst-ridden" (ridden by fear). Presumably the word was introduced by George Eliot in 1849 .

Psychoanalysts such as Rainer Krause count fear among the affects and differentiate between object-indeterminate fear ( Latin angor ) and object-related, i.e. targeted fear (Latin timor ).

Furthermore, a situation-related emotion fear can be distinguished from the relatively stable personality trait fearfulness . They have been referred to as state fear and trait fear since 1966, based on Charles Spielberger 's fear model.

Range of fear

Fear is the generic term for a large number of emotions, the commonality of which is based on an insecurity in the emotional life. The psychoanalyst Fritz Riemann differs in its popular masterpiece basic forms of anxiety between the "schizoid", the "depressed", the "compulsive" and "hysterical" personality type . He describes the "fear of change", the "fear of finality", the "fear of closeness" and the "fear of becoming oneself" as the associated "basic fears" of people.

Although conceived as ideal-typical abstractions, in the tradition of psychoanalysis this interpretation of fear is already conceptually unmistakably attached to a tendency towards the pathological and thus towards one-sidedness, which is viewed critically today.

According to the fear spectrum established by the experimental psychologist Siegbert A. Warwitz , the manifestations of fear range from simple "insecurities" (anxiety, shyness, timidity ...) to "compulsions" (compulsion to eat, compulsion to control, compulsion to cleanse, etc.) and "forms of fear" (Fear of injury, fear of failure, fear of touch etc.), the "phobias" ( acrophobia , agoraphobia , claustrophobia ...), the "panics" (anxiety attacks, paralysis, etc.) to the "psychoses" (neurotic fears, paranoia, life anxiety ... ). As a rule, only the specialist psychologist differentiates between fears and fears for diagnostic and therapeutic reasons, for example between a diffuse general test fear and a test fear that can be reduced to a specific examiner, a fixed subject area or a definable situation . In the non-professional area, fear is often confused or mixed up with other types of emotions, for example with shame (preservation of the intimate area), with mistrust (doubts about a doctor's competence) or with a high degree of psychological tension when dealing with a dangerous situation (concentration of risk).

Fear cannot be defined as an unpleasant, negative emotion. Much dependent on the level of individual risk experience and personal competence assessment, fear can also be sought and experienced as a highly pleasurable experience, for example in the form of a thrill . The contrast experience of exciting dangerous situations and their management leads to a desired increase in the attitude to life. The so-called kick can be seen as an (expected) turning point between tension and release from the fear phase.

As control instruments for dangerous behavior and warning impulses, the controlled non-pathological forms of fear represent an indispensable basic equipment in the context of the functioning instinct of self-preservation .

A special phenomenon in the fear complex is the so-called "fear of fear" (phobophobia), also known as fear sensitivity , an objectless fear of one's own fear symptoms.

Function of fear

In terms of evolutionary history , fear has an important function as a protective and survival mechanism that sharpens the senses and activates physical strength, which initiates appropriate behavior ( fight-or-flight ) in actual or even only supposed dangerous situations.

It can only fulfill this task if neither too much fear blocks action nor too little fear ignores real dangers and risks. In their known activation model, as for them Yerkes-Dodson Law is called or "law of fear," which formulated behavioral biologist and ethologist Robert Yerkes and John D. Dodson in 1908 lawful relationships between a certain nervous excitement level of the subjects and the accessibility their cognitive performance, which they characterized as "activation levels". The validity of the knowledge gained in animal experiments at the time has now also been confirmed for human behavior through empirical studies.

Since the energy expenditure for an escape is low (a few hundred kilocalories), but overlooked threats can have serious consequences, the “alarm system” fear is set very sensitively by nature, which sometimes results in false alarms .

Fear can work both consciously and unconsciously. If the fear response is inadequate in relation to the actual threat situation, one speaks of an anxiety disorder . If this fear is tied to a certain object or a certain situation, one speaks of a phobia .

Physical reactions

Expression of fear in a girl

The physical symptoms of fear are normal (i.e. not pathological) physical reactions which, in the event of a (real or fantasized) danger, are intended to ensure physical or mental integrity and, in extreme cases, survival. They are a living thing to a fight or flight situation ( fight or flight ) Prepare:

  • Increased attention, pupils dilate, visual and auditory nerves become more sensitive
  • Increased muscle tension, increased reaction speed
  • Increased heart rate, increased blood pressure
  • Breathing shallower and faster
  • Energy supply in muscles
  • Physical reactions such as sweating, tremors and dizziness
  • Showers of heat or cold
  • Bladder, bowel and stomach functions are inhibited during the state of fear
  • Nausea and shortness of breath also occur in some cases
  • Secretion of molecules in sweat, which make other people smell fear and subconsciously trigger them to be alert

In addition to these individual reactions, showing fear, for example through the characteristic facial expression or through language, has the social meaning of asking for protection.

The physical expressions of fear are the same whether it is a real threat or a panic attack . Every fourth patient with anxiety disorder complains of chronic pain.


Alternating between the emergence of fear in defensive behavior and the extinction of fear in exploratory behavior is vital for the survival of many animals, but how this transition is achieved through specific neural circuitry has not yet been adequately researched. Neurophysiologists assume that bi-directional transitions between states of high and low anxiety are context-dependently triggered by very rapid changes in the balance of the activities of two different communities of basal amygdala neurons.

Starting from the amygdala, the following regions are excited: periaqueductal gray , locus caeruleus , nucleus parabrachialis , the vegetative nervous system via the hypothalamus and the so-called stress axis ( hypothalamus-pituitary-adrenal cortex axis ). In the case of an acute stress / fear reaction, there is an increased release of adrenaline from the adrenal medulla. With long-lasting, chronic stress, the release of cortisol from the adrenal cortex dominates. The extent of the reaction varies from person to person. Early experiences (e.g. mother's stress during pregnancy, perinatal events, mother-child relationship, length of breastfeeding, and others) seem to play a role here.

According to the current state of knowledge, three neurotransmitter systems play an important role in fear :

  • GABAergic System : GABA is the most important inhibitory neurotransmitter in the CNS . A decreased GABA function leads to overstimulation and generalization of the excitation. Generalized fears appear to be related to a malfunction of the inhibitory GABA system. Only GABA-A-benzodiazepine (BDZ) receptors seem to be of importance here. Benzodiazepines have a stimulating effect on the GABA-BDZ receptor complex, which u. a. explains its anti-anxiety and calming effect. There are also far-reaching connections between the GABA system and the noradrenergic and serotonergic neurotransmitter systems.
  • noradrenergic system : noradrenergic pathways (with exit in the locus caeruleus and efferents in most structures of the brain) seem to play a decisive role in anxiety symptoms. In animal experiments it could be shown that a noradrenergic activity increased by electrical stimuli leads to a full picture of a panic attack. Faulty regulation of the locus caeruleus is therefore discussed.
  • Serotonergic system : The serotonin system plays a major role in various forms of anxiety, but the exact mechanisms are not yet known. In general, a reduced function of the serotonergic system is associated with phobias, social phobias and obsessive-compulsive disorders. People with low serotonin levels react inhibited and anxious to aggressive. A lowered serotonin level was also found in suicide patients. However, an overfunction of the serotonergic system in connection with fears has already been found, so that a differentiated, probably structure-specific and modulatory effect is assumed.

Typical reactions to anxiety-inducing stimuli are sympathetic excitation and avoidance behavior . The autonomic sympathetic response and the recognition of danger signals are doubly dissociated : If the amygdala is damaged , the danger signal can be named, but a physical fear reaction does not occur, while if the hippocampus is damaged, the physical fear reaction is triggered, but the patient does not recognize the cause. In mammals, the spontaneous fear responses can be modulated by neocortical areas of the brain, particularly the prefrontal cortex (PFC). For example, mice become more sensitive to pain if they have previously observed another mouse's pain reaction, but only if it was an acquaintance. In humans, too, the empathic fear response is context-dependent. In the experiment by Lanzetta and Englis, for example, the strength of an observer's fear depended on whether the model was an opponent or a comrade in a game. Projections from the ventromedial PFC to the amygdala are critical in extinction learning .

Learning processes

Everyone has a typical fear disposition from birth, which can, however, be changed considerably from early childhood and for a lifetime through appropriate learning processes. Any kind of fear can be learned, but it can also be unlearned.

The differences between the various forms of fear play an essential role here: There are, for example, serious differences in the setting of goals as well as in the method of treating neurotic fears , panic attacks , phobias or fear . Every learning process aims to achieve a controlled medium fear level that is as realistic as possible, because on the one hand inappropriate fears waste energy and excessive fears paralyze the potential for action, on the other hand the necessary warning function and protective effect are missing if the fears are too low.

Preserving danger signals in memory obviously has selective advantages. Fear is the learned connection between specific cues in events and their harmful consequences. Fears can be learned in different ways, for example through personal experience ( conditioning ), through observation of other people's behavior ( learning on the model ) or through instruction (e.g. warning notices).

Mowrer's two-factor theory

A classic and influential learning-theoretical model of fear generation and maintenance is the two-factor theory of Mowrer (1960), which postulates the following factors:

  1. Classical conditioning : Fear arises through classical conditioning, in which an originally neutral stimulus becomes a conditioned fear stimulus through simultaneous occurrence with a fear reaction (see the Little Albert experiment ).
  2. Operant conditioning : Avoiding the classically conditioned fear stimulus (an object or a certain situation, e.g. tram driving) leads to a reduction in fear and tension and thus to negative reinforcement and maintenance of avoidance behavior and anticipatory fear .


Some fears, such as the fear of spiders , snakes, and angry faces, are much easier to learn than others. They are evidently, as Martin Seligman put it, "biologically prepared". He called this phenomenon preparedness . This is also the case when the stimuli are presented subliminally . However, modern sources of danger such as firearms or defective electrical cables are not biologically prepared.

Cognitive view

From a cognitive point of view, according to Aaron T. Beck , fear arises when the probability of a danger occurring is high, the costs of damage are high, and one's own coping strategies and the chance of outside help are assessed as low. Quasi-mathematically this could be described as follows:

Fear = Estimated probability * Estimated harm / (coping strategies + possible outside help)

A similar explanation is offered by Lazarus ' stress model , according to which fear arises as a consequence of the subjective threat interpretation with a simultaneous low assessment of coping.

Psychoanalytic view

Sigmund Freud distinguished three causes of fear:

  • Real fear : This arises when there is an external threat in dangerous situations , so it corresponds to fear . It should signal dangers and trigger adapted reactions in response. The natural responses are flight, evasion, panic, anger, and aggression. This also includes fear of vitality, which occurs in life-threatening diseases and situations such as B. angina pectoris or bronchial asthma occurs. The extent of real anxiety also depends on factors such as psycho-vegetative constitution (exhaustion or emaciation), personality and willingness to react, resistance and early childhood fear experiences. Anxiety increases adaptability by motivating learning new reactions to cope with danger. However, even if the intensity is too great, it can lead to unsuitable reactions and self-damaging behavior with regard to coping with risks.
  • The internal anxiety and neurotic anxiety : It adjusts itself when the ego of excessive instinctual demands of It threatens to become overwhelmed.
  • The moral anxiety : It occurs when the superego threatens punishment for violations of rules and taboos, and manifests itself in shame or guilt.

To defend against these fears, the ego has several defense mechanisms at its disposal, which Anna Freud described in her book The I and the Defense Mechanisms (1936).

The psychiatrist and psychoanalyst Stavros Mentzos considers fear to be an “innate and biologically anchored reaction pattern” due to the “accompanying vegetative phenomena and analogous phenomena in animals” and compares it with the pain reaction. After the behavior therapy, he asks himself “whether fear is not a real instinct”.

Sociology of fear

The sociology of fear deals with the social causes and consequences as well as the social manifestations of fear.

Fear has been an issue in numerous theories, albeit often implicitly, since the beginning of sociology. For example in Max Weber's thesis of the ultimately fear-driven Protestant ethics and its significance for the emergence of modern capitalism or in Norbert Elia's theory of increasing affect control, which is largely borne by fear of social shame and shame. In sociological anomie theories, too, insecurity and contingency anxiety as a result of anomic social conditions are seen as a reason for suicide (Emile Durkheim) and the collapse of binding social norms (Robert K. Merton).

Thesis of the fear society

Some contemporary sociological diagnoses (including Ulrich Beck and Zygmunt Bauman ) describe western societies as having been increasingly fearful in recent decades. The reasons for this are usually three types of arguments:

  • Increase in specific threats: A large number of potential threats are mentioned, the spectrum ranges from technical risks (nuclear threats, environmental pollution) to terrorism and pandemics.
  • Increase in contingency: The social development has led to an increase in social complexity and a heightened cultural awareness of contingency, which is reflected subjectively in a growing impression of fundamental indeterminacy and unpredictability of the world and of one's own lifestyle. Those aspects that contribute to this development include individualization, a variety of options, heterogenization of social norms, flexibilization of the labor market, globalization, multipolar world order, etc.
  • Dynamic of its own: Existing fear continuously spreads to other social areas (transference) or is - for the purpose of coping - projected onto substitute objects (e.g. certain diseases or social groups)

Empirically, however, the thesis of an increased fear and a high level of fear has so far not been confirmed in Germany, at least for the period between the 1980s and 2010. The frequent assumption of “German fear” also turned out to be a myth in a European comparison, in which Germany had one of the lowest fear levels.

Forms of fear

Based on philosophical and psychological fear determinations, a distinction can be made between concrete fear and contingency fear. Concrete fear focuses on a specific threatened object (e.g. physical integrity, recognition or material situation) and is usually shown in a fear of or about something, while contingency anxiety relates to the "suffering from indefiniteness", i.e. H. relates to uncertainty, insecurity, disorientation or a variety of options. It is this form of fear that is considered to be characteristic of complex contemporary societies in present sociological diagnoses.

Social conditions of fear

The social conditions of fear include both socio-structural and cultural influences.

The sociology of emotions gives some clues about such factors. According to socio-structural approaches, power deficits in particular are responsible for the development of fear, while cultural theories emphasize the importance of emotion norms, i.e. H. Emphasize social rules of expression and feeling of emotions.

Max Dehne expands and systematizes this understanding by relating social conditions to so-called assessment dimensions, according to which fear arises when a situation is assessed in a certain way - in particular along the dimensions of the object of identification concerned, uncertainty / probability and controllability. Four levels of social dependency can be distinguished:

  • Transituative level: How issues are generally assessed depends on the socio-structural position (e.g. income, education, age) and cultural conditions (e.g. gender, religion, country of origin).
  • Specific knowledge structures: In addition, there are situational aspects, such as the threat information circulating in a society in relation to specific situations that have been culturally handed down (e.g. Koro's disease ), are based on experience (e.g. earthquakes, wars) or in society Discourse is conveyed and its meaning can be negotiated by various actors - media, politicians, NGOs, business enterprises, social movements, etc. Among other things, the credibility and standing of the respective actors have a decisive influence on the development of fear-specific assessments.
  • Emotional effects: emotions can lead to self-reinforcement and generalization. Whether and to what extent this happens depends on moderating social conditions (representativeness of the situation, existing knowledge structures, emotional norms, etc.).
  • Coping: An attempt can be made to deal with fear, for example by reinterpreting the situation. However, this can also lead to the emergence of other fears in that situations or social minorities are now constructed as threats - actually unrelated.

Forms of fearful behavior

When dealing with fear, people develop a broad spectrum of behavioral patterns in accordance with their innate emotional structure and the risk management they have learned , which are not always stable but can vary considerably depending on the particular fear-triggering situation. The risk researcher Siegbert A. Warwitz differentiates between eight typical "attitude tendencies" which move in the directions of "escape reflex", "attack posture", "exaggeration" or "trivialization":

  • The avoidance behavior trying to avoid anxiety-inducing events, rooms or persons as possible.
  • The trivializing behavior tries to downplay the feelings of fear of oneself and others, which are experienced as embarrassing.
  • The repression behavior tries to suppress or push away feelings of fear that prevent the task at hand.
  • The denial behavior displayed signs of anxiety from consciousness, or hide the perceived weakness as anxiety over others.
  • The overdoing behavior repeats and takes safety precautions to calm the tense emotional state.
  • The generalization behavior follows the thought scheme of fears as a "normal" phenomenon in order to free oneself from an experienced special position. ("Everyone is scared")
  • The coping behavior tries to achieve a realistic level of fear and a "functioning fear conscience".
  • The heroizing behavior takes on the emotional state of fear, even seeks it and feels a certain heroism in the process.

See also


  • Marcus Balzereit: Critique of Fear . VS-Verlag , Wiesbaden 2010, ISBN 978-3-531-16598-1
  • Borwin Bandelow , Peter Palm (illustrations): The fear book. Where fears come from and how to fight them . rororo 61949, Reinbek near Hamburg 2004, ISBN 3-499-61949-0
  • Christine Brasch, Inga-Maria Richberg: The fear out of the blue . Mosaik, Munich 1990, ISBN 3-570-06024-1
  • Hanns Hippius , Helmfried E. Klein and Friedrich Strian: Anxiety Syndrome. Diagnostics and therapy. Springer, Berlin et al. 1999, ISBN 3-540-63977-2
  • Christoph J. Kemper: The personality trait fear sensitivity: taxon or dimension? - An analysis with the mixed distribution Rasch model . Dr. Kovac, Hamburg 2010, ISBN 978-3-8300-5119-0 .
  • Heinz W. Krohne: Fear and coping with fear . Kohlhammer, Stuttgart / Berlin / Cologne 1996, ISBN 3-17-013039-0 .
  • Heinz W. Krohne: Psychology of fear . Kohlhammer, Stuttgart 2010, ISBN 978-3-17-020805-6 .
  • Gerda Lazarus-Mainka, Stefanie Siebeneick: fear and anxiety . Hogrefe, Göttingen / Bern / Toronto / Seattle 1999, ISBN 3-8017-0969-8
  • Jörg Manthey: F41: Anxiety Disorders, Part 1: Living with Fears in Society . epubliVerlag 2010, ISBN 978-3-86931-966-7
  • Stavros Mentzos : Neurotic Conflict Processing, Introduction to the Psychoanalytic Doctrine of Neuroses, Taking New Perspectives into Account , Frankfurt am Main 1984, ISBN 3-596-42239-6
  • Winfried Panse, Wolfgang Stegmann: Anxiety as a cost factor. How fears arise in companies. Why fears affect performance. How to fight fears effectively. Modern industry, Landsberg 1996, ISBN 3-478-35430-7
  • Theo R. Payk: Checklist Psychiatry and Psychotherapy . 131 tables. In: Checklists of Current Medicine . 3. Edition. Thieme, Stuttgart et al. 1998, ISBN 3-13-710203-0
  • Harald Pühl : Fear in groups and institutions . 4th edition, Leutner, Berlin 2008, ISBN 3-934391-25-7
  • Fritz Riemann : Basic Forms of Fear . A depth psychological study . 39th edition. Reinhardt, Munich 2009, ISBN 3-497-00749-8 .
  • Maren Sörensen: Introduction to Anxiety Psychology. Deutscher Studien-Verlag, Weinheim 1993, ISBN 3-89271-374-X
  • Charles Spielberger : Anxiety and Behavior New York 1966
  • Siegbert A. Warwitz : Forms of fear behavior . In: Ders .: Search for meaning in risk. Life in growing rings . Schneider-Verlag Hohengehren, 2., ext. Edition, Verlag Schneider, Baltmannsweiler 2016, ISBN 978-3-8340-1620-1 , pp. 34–39.
  • Siegbert A. Warwitz: Avoid fear - seek fear - learn to fear . In: Case-Word-Number 112 (2010) 10-15
  • Robert Yerkes , John D. Dodson: The relation of strength of stimulus to rapidity of habit-formation . Journal of Comparative Neurology and Psychology, 18 (1908) 459-482

Web links

Wikiquote: Anxiety  - Quotes
Wiktionary: Anxiety  - explanations of meanings, word origins, synonyms, translations

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