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Fear as a Teacher

“You gain strength, courage, and confidence by every experience in which you really stop to look fear in the face. You must do the thing which you think you cannot do.” – Eleanor Roosevelt

pexels-photo-169978Taking a deep breath as I am typing these words about a topic that is inherent in the human condition. I consider myself a pretty brave person, having faced deaths of family members and friends, injury, an ectopic pregnancy, financial challenge, a heart attack, shingles, kidney stones, job layoff, illness, relationships ending, and loss of my home in a hurricane. These are all common life events; some expected, most arriving out of the blue. When they have occurred, I have, like many, shaken my head and muttered WTF? I questioned, “Who thought this one up?” as I hastened to find a solution to these erstwhile dilemmas.

Hard to imagine the idea of fear being helpful, since it is an emotion that most people would rather avoid. We are born hardwired with the fight, flight or freeze response which comes in handy when we are faced with physical danger such as fleeing someone brandishing a weapon or needing to merge lanes on a major highway. Fortunately, I have only experienced the latter and hope never to encounter the former.

According to Gleb Shumyatsky, PhD, an assistant professor of genetics at Rutgers, the State University of New Jersey, fear is genetically oriented.  He says, “This is a major advance in the field of learning and memory that will allow for a better understanding of posttraumatic stress disorderphobiasborderline personality disorder, and other human anxiety diseases,” 

The parallel question remains:  Is fear a learned response? As a therapist who has worked with clients in the various realms of mental health, for more than 38 years, I have noted that some people were taught to fear change, challenge, those who they perceive as different, leaving the comfort of the familiar, letting go of habits and addictions, loss of loved ones, death and incapacity.

Chapman University conducted a survey  from 2014-2016, inquiring of Americans what fears they harbor.

Below is a list of the 10 fears for which the highest percentage of Americans reported being “Afraid,” or “Very Afraid.”

Fear Fear Domain % Afraid or Very Afraid
Corrupt government officials Government 60.6
Terrorist Attack Manmade Disasters 41
Not having enough money for the future Economic 39.9
Terrorism Crime 38.5
Government restrictions on firearms and ammunition Government 38.5
People I love dying Illness and Death 38.1
Economic/financial collapse Economic 37.5
Identity theft Crime 37.1
People I love becoming seriously ill Illness and Death 35.9
The Affordable Health Care Act/Obamacare Government 35.5


Fear can either paralyze or catalyze us to take action. Noticing fears can assist us in determining how to face them. Many surveys have indicated that public speaking is a top fear, ranking even higher than trepidation about death. The joke is that some would rather die than speak in public. As a public speaker, I am at ease in the spotlight and can only recall one time when I had stage fright. Although I don’t welcome it, I became aware of what fueled it. Primary among the thoughts were, “What if I blow it in front of all these people and I discover that I’m not as talented, capable, clever….as I think I am?”  That dreaded imposter syndrome kicked in and my mind was off to the races as it catalogued all the other perceived failures and foibles to which I have fallen prey.  Fortunately, I was able to access my support system and the reminder that I have survived everything that has ever happened to me and it was likely that I would make it through this challenge as well. Clearly, I did and now can use it as a reference point to accommodate when future fears arise.

What are some fun fears?

  • Scary movies
  • Wild amusement park rides
  • High octane performance athletics
  • Wilderness survival adventures
  • White water rafting
  • Motorcycle or NASCAR Racing
  • Skydiving
  • Bungie jumping
  • Hang gliding
  • Ziplining
  • Doing an Outward Bound Course (I completed one in 1981 as a college senior)
  • Surfing
  • Traveling solo
  • Taking on fitness challenges (I am planning on doing a 5k)

People seek these types of fear inducing activities in part because they provide an adrenalin rush that rivals the most potent drug. Stories abound of those who are able to do super-human feats when in its throes.

What does fear have to teach us?

I have seen several acronyms for FEAR; among them:

  • False
  • Evidence
  • Appearing
  • Real
  • Forgetting
  • Everything (is)
  • All
  • Right

It can show us that we are more resilient and flexible than we imagined

It can remind us that we are here to live out loud.

It can provide evidence that when overcome, it can be the rocket fuel that propels us forward into a vividly rich life.

Let go of the shore (sure) and let the water carry you to new horizons.

Fear as a Teacher

Edie Weinstein, MSW, LSW

Edie Weinstein, MSW, LSW is a journalist and interviewer, licensed social worker, interfaith minister, radio host and best-selling author.

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APA Reference
Weinstein, E. (2018). Fear as a Teacher. Psych Central. Retrieved on November 24, 2020, from
Scientifically Reviewed
Last updated: 8 Jul 2018 (Originally: 3 May 2017)
Last reviewed: By a member of our scientific advisory board on 8 Jul 2018
Published on Psych All rights reserved.