Irrational fears can feed underlying anxiety. Keeping them in check may involve retraining your brain’s response to fear.
Fear is not only natural — it’s important. Fear tells you when you’re in danger physically or emotionally. The brain doesn’t distinguish between real or imagined danger.
Faced with fear, your body jumps into action with a flight, fight, or freeze response that allows you to protect yourself from harm.
In our modern lives, where the threat of saying something embarrassing in a meeting is more prevalent than being eaten by a tiger, our systems can go into overdrive trying to fend off potential, future danger.
Some people might find themselves worrying about speaking in public and get sweaty palms before a presentation but present anyway. For others, intense fear may lead them to avoid meetings or speaking in groups at all.
If you experience an exaggerated response to an irrational fear, like public speaking, it’s possible to calm your nervous system when it warns you of a nonexistent danger.
Fear is a typical human response to danger. But when your fears are out of proportion to the situation, they are considered irrational.
For example, a rational fear might show up as anxiety on a flight during turbulence. Irrational fear is being terrified of flying or the possibility of a plane crash to the point that you don’t take vacations anywhere that requires a flight.
Irrational fears pop up when no actual threat exists. They can also be fears of fictional future situations. These imagined fears come with intense, frightening thoughts and an outsized reaction, like going out of the way to avoid the possibility of the scenario ever occurring.
For example, dating can make all of us nervous and can be awkward. But there’s no real danger in going out on a date and socializing.
Someone with an irrational fear might worry intensely about a fictional extreme situation, like their date humiliating them. That fear might drive them to avoid dating entirely.
Irrational fears play a central role in anxiety disorders. Anxiety disorders are characterized by strong feelings of fear or worry. Intense feelings of fear can feel uncontrollable and spark avoidance tactics in people with anxiety.
Many of the fears that are underlying in anxiety conditions are about situations that pose little or no real danger, making them irrational fears. Many people living with anxiety know their fears are irrational, but certain thoughts and situations still set off a flight, fight, or freeze response.
Here are some of the anxiety disorders that involve irrational fears:
- Generalized anxiety disorder (GAD) involves irrational fear that isn’t related to anything specific.
- Social anxiety disorder is tied to an irrational fear of embarrassing yourself publicly and limits you at school, work, social circles.
- Specific phobias are centered around an intense irrational fear of a specific object or situation, like airplanes, spiders, and public speaking.
- Panic disorder occurs when intense and possibly irrational fears bring on a panic attack. You may develop an irrational fear of panic attacks themselves.
- feeling tense or edgy, both mentally and physically
- inability to concentrate or focus
- difficulty sleeping
This anxiety quiz may help you assess whether you have anxiety, and in what form. It should not replace seeing a medical professional.
Here are some tips for managing and treating irrational fears:
Mindfulness practices may help you learn to evaluate when your fears go from rational to irrational, and can help you manage your reactions to them.
Learning to be patient with yourself and accepting your irrational fears for what they are, including the limits they place on your life, can help you begin to retrain yourself to react differently to them.
How can you best feel in control of your life? Anxiety is rooted in irrational fears of what might happen. In other words, a sense of a lack of control.
Add in activities that help you regain a sense of control, like volunteering for an organization you care about or joining a sports league. Exerting this sense of agency over your life can help you overcome a tendency to stew on unknown outcomes.
Cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) can teach you new ways to engage with and react to your irrational fears, thus helping soothe your anxiety about them.
A component of CBT, exposure therapy means that you will expose yourself to your fear as a way to lessen its impact on you over time. Research shows that
If you fear going to the doctor, you might start by looking at a photo of a doctor’s office. In the next exposure session, you might call and talk to your doctor’s receptionist. You’d continue increasing the significance of the exposure until eventually, you’d work your way up to going to the doctor.
When you feel your body responding to irrational fear, pause to calm your nervous system down. Close your eyes and try a deep breathing technique or go for a walk outside. Experiment with calming activities you love, like sipping your favorite tea, coloring, or using an anxiety relief product.
When you know your fears are irrational, but you cannot see a way to escape the cycle of anxiety, know that help is available. Anxiety disorders are treatable.
Consider connecting with people who’ve had similar experiences in anxiety online support groups.
Talk with your doctor about your symptoms and if anti-anxiety medication might help your anxiety disorder. Treatment for specific phobias typically focuses on therapy. But as you’re working on your fears, antidepressants, benzodiazepines, and beta-blockers might reduce anxiety symptoms that get in the way of your everyday life.