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Human Expressions of Fear


  1. Fight: For humans fear might be expressed in physical or verbal aggression. If we respond like this when it doesn’t seem appropriate to others we alienate people.
  2. Flight: This might manifest itself by avoiding certain situations/places or by only staying for short periods of time.
  3. Freezing: This might manifest itself as failure to express ones thoughts or wishes at important times, or by seeming to ‘cut-off’ or by not acting to protect oneself.

Why do we get anxious?


When animals, including humans, become frightened they respond in one of three instinctive ways:

  1. By fighting (fight)
  2. By running away (flight) or
  3. By becoming very still or immobilised (freeze).

Thus fear induces either a fight, or a flight or a freeze response.
Examples in the animal kingdom include:

  1. Fight: The lead wolf in a pack weakens. Other wolves will fight him for dominance, he will fight back. They will keep fighting until one is clearly the winner. This occurs in many animal male hierarchies and the fight may go on to the death or until one is seriously hurt.
  2. Flight: A lion chasing a deer. The deer runs away putting every ounce of energy into its effort to escape.
  3. Freeze: Possums when threatened keep very still, or ‘play dead’ thus encouraging the threat to loose interest in them. This is where the phrase ‘playing possum’ comes from.

You may be able to think of many other examples.
Parents (usually mothers) of virtually all mammal species will respond in one of these ways if their young are threatened.

When an animal is frightened the body reacts in certain ways:

  1. The heart beats faster
  2. Blood pressure goes up
  3. Blood goes away from certain organs and towards muscles
  4. Breathing becomes more shallow,
  5. The mind becomes aroused and focused on the danger (but at the expense of processing other information about what is happening, people can’t “think straight”)
  6. Shaking and sweating occurs
  7. Hair stands on end and the skin gets “prickly”
  8. The gut gets churned up
  9. Adrenaline and cortisol levels go up

Fear feels awful but it helps to protect us from danger by enabling us to take evasive action. In the animal kingdom we think of this fear being caused by either a predator or by something else in the environment that is life threatening and this also applies to humans.

However, because humans are more complex they can feel fear from a greater range of circumstances.

Furthermore what may cause fear in one person may not cause fear in another person. For example an experienced tight-rope walker may feel no fear walking on a high narrow ledge; where as most of us would be petrified. An adult may not be frightened by other adults shouting angrily at each other but a child may be quite frightened.

How frightened we are in any particular situation depends on what meaning we give to the event/situation and what memories (both conscious and unconscious memories) we have of similar situations in the past.5