How do we know what to fear? Mostly we learn what to fear from direct experience or from others. In this way we each develop a personal catalogue of fears, which can include universal symbols, specific threats, or imaginary dangers. Sometimes we learn what to fear from reading history or from watching the news.
Although certain fears are hard-wired into us, our innate tendencies are not nearly as entrenched as you might imagine. If our personal experience suggests we are safe in the presence of "natural threats", we may learn to be unafraid of them.
For example, rats can overcome their natural aversion to cats if experience teaches them otherwise. (If this video is not embedded, please go to the Emotional Detective).
Along the same lines, if we have bad experiences, we can become afraid of things that are not dangerous. We initially "learn what is dangerous" from the people who care for us. We observe them and how they respond to everything, paying careful attention to what scares them. If our mother was scared of fear, then it is likely that we will be scared of our fear. Most of us don't remember much before age five, but fears we have learned often stay with us nonetheless.
This next video shows how learning shapes our instincts. Here you can see how a mother's response teaches her baby what to fear and what not to fear. This starts happening when we are very young and continues throughout our childhood.
Despite innate predispositions, our fear is mostly learned from other people's cues about whether to be scared of strangers, our own emotions, new experiences, or bumps in the road. One negative experience (one trial learning) , whether it is from a dog bite or a hurtful remark, may teach us to be afraid for a lifetime. Even when we don't consciously remember our fears, our bodies recollect our past experiences, teaching us what has been scary.
How to overcome irrational fears?
The good news is that you can suppress irrational fears. Having new experiences can gradually free you from old fears, but these new experiences of safety must be repeated over and over again. The hardest part of "unlearning" old fears is having the courage to tolerate your fear long enough to learn something new. The first step to overcoming fears is to identify your fears.
We are all afraid of many things you cannot see objectively, things like unfamiliarity, difference, change, pain and discomfort. When you think about your fears, do not confine yourself to the physical realm.
Consider how people's fears influence their lives, and yours. As you undertake this exercise, think about people whom you know well, and yourself.
Fears influence their politics, relationship patterns, adventuresomeness, shyness, and so many things. Fears influence your ability to tolerate your own emotions, bodily responses meant to inform you of opportunity and danger.
Thinking about the source of your fears lets you plan ahead, to respond to your irrational fears with greater calm. Overcoming your fears will inspire the courage needed to try something new, whether in the physical world relationships, or in your mind.