Psychology in the News

November 15, 2008

Frequently facing forboding fears

Filed under: conditioning, emotions, learning — Tags: , , — intro2psych @ 12:28 pm

by Brittany Parks

Photo by Jim Grady

Photo by Jim Grady

Do you have a worst fear? Are you afraid of falling from high places, for example? What if someone told you that you could learn to overcome your worst fear? Well, science supports the idea that you can. One way to combat your biggest fear is to face it.

A UCLA study shows that the more frequently one faces a fearful situation, the sooner they can learn to overcome it. The researchers exposed mice to a white noise that was followed by a shock; therefore, the white noise became the “conditioned stimulus” that the mice learned to fear on its own because they learned to anticipate the pain of the shock. By exposing the rats to the white noise, without the shock, for long periods of time and little time between each exposure, the rats learned to overcome the fear of the white noise all together. Thus, proving that the more you face your fear the sooner you will learn to overcome it.

Learning to overcome your fear can also produce other benefits. By learning to overcome fear in one situation, you will have less anxiety when put any other dangerous situations. Researchers Kendal and Pollak also studied mice to support the theory of “learned safety,” the conditioned inhibition of fear. In their studies, the scientists conditioned two groups of rats. The first was the “fear conditioned” group which received a shock every time they heard a certain tone. The second was the “safety conditioned” group who did not receive a shock every time they heard the tone; thus, they learned not to fear the tone. When each group was placed in a pool of water with no escape, the “safety conditioned” group experienced less anxiety when facing the fearful situation. Learning to feel safety in a situation that may have seemed harmful can lead one to feel less stress when facing other experiences that may cause one to normally experience the feeling of fright.

Although each of these studies observes the fear patterns of mice, not humans, and although mice face different fear filled experiences than humans, mice react to fear filled situations in a similar manner as humans. This is because the brains of mice and humans both contain the same memory functions that can aid in “conditioning” of a fear to remember the fear or, in this case, to get rid of it.  So, are you afraid of falling from high places? I advise a trip to the nearest them park for a thrill packed experience on the tallest Ferris wheel, and I advise you to ride it as many times as you can. And after triumphing over your fear of heights, why not head over to the clowns. I’m sure this fear will not seem so bad after all after scaling a hundred feet in a little fenced basket.


Howard Hughes Medical Institute (2008, October 9). Learning How Not To Be Afraid. ScienceDaily. Retrieved October 9, 2008, from

American Psychological Association (2003, October 6). Scientist Find More Efficient Way To ‘Unlearn’ Fear. ScienceDaily. Retrieved October 10, 2008, from


  1. As explained above, we can be conditioned to no longer respond with the same severity to what was once a phobia, but interestingly enough we can also be conditioned into a phobia and/or into panic attacks. In this case, your unconditioned stimulus would be something that raises your stress level and the unconditioned response could be panic attack. So each time you experience the physical reaction to a phobia such as increased heart rate, rapid breathing and other responses associated with the sympathetic nervous system, you get a panic attack.

    That all seems rather obvious, but the more interesting component is what happens when you experience increased heart rate in a different situation? That conditioned stimulus can now trigger the conditioned response of a panic attack.

    Operant conditioning also creates phobias, generally you have a bad experience with something which leads you to repeat that behavior less frequently resulting in positive punishment.

    So as helpful classical conditioning can be to overcoming our fears, it can also be maladaptive and cause phobias.

    Comment by Alli Tilden — November 24, 2008 @ 4:24 pm

  2. One of my biggest fears has been heights for as long as I can remember. So I have tried to force myself to “face my fear” by riding the highest roller coasters, rock climbing, bungee jumping, etc (I haven’t worked up the courage for sky diving yet but there’s still time). The point is, I have gradually gotten more and more comfortable with my feet off the ground. The more time I spend in high places and remain unscathed, the more safe I feel. Of course I imagine that if I had tried rock climbing and fallen, then I would be afraid to go up the stairs let alone jump from an airplane.

    Comment by Brianna — November 27, 2008 @ 2:07 pm

  3. When I was younger, my mom took me and my sister to Bowcraft Amusement Park and let us ride the dragon roller coaster. It’s a really small coaster, but for my 5 year old self, it was too much. Ever since then, I remember being particularly afraid of roller coasters. At one point, I thought this fear was actually a fear of heights, but after many gym classes spent climbing ropes to the ceiling and many rides on the Ferris wheel, I deemed that I wasn’t afraid of how high off the ground roller coasters are. I later discovered that it wasn’t roller coasters themselves, just the sensation you get in your stomach when you go straight down (like Splash Mountain and the Tower of Terror). Other roller coasters, like Superman, where you are oriented on your stomach so you don’t get that sensation, weren’t fear-inducing. My heart still raced while waiting on line for the Superman ride, but I suppose that can be attributed to the dragon coaster, whose mental impact must have been great. So I guess, you should face your fears in order to overcome them, but you should also face them in order to pinpoint what exactly you are afraid of. By targeting your fears, it makes overcoming them and facing them so much easier.

    Comment by Robin Mele — December 3, 2008 @ 1:34 pm

  4. As a performer, I’ve dealt with stage fright beginning in the sixth grade. Over the eight years, as I began to perform more, my performance anxiety became predictable. My anxiety levels generally stayed lower during a performance unless I had a really exposed part to play. However, regardless of how many times I perform, the stage fright will indubitably be there, depending on the nature of the concert. When I read that one could potentially get over one’s fear through conditioning, the example that I thought would disprove this is stage fright. Apparently, there is a way to get over a stage fright: a prescription medication called propranolol. Propranolol is a beta blocker, a medication that helps mitigate stage fright in most performers. They were originally cardiac medications that work by blocking the action of adrenaline and other substances; as a result, the effects of the sympathetic nervous system are curtailed. Consequently, when a danger is perceived, whether it be a lion or a large audience, there will be no fear response elicited.

    Comment by Daryl Duran — December 7, 2008 @ 11:29 pm

  5. It is interesting that in the studies with rats the researchers forced the rats to view the conditined stimulus without the unconditioned stimulus. By studying fears in this way the researchers examined the relationship of classical conditioning to fear but ignored the powerful effect operant conditioning has on the development and maintinence of phobias.

    Often times when Phobias develop they are enhanced through operant conditioning, which this study avoids examinging. People often times try to avoid their fears and in doing so they get negaive reinfocement (the removal of the feeling of fear). This causes them to avoid the feared stimulus more. Since the rats were forced to face their feared stimuls, this was not examined in the study.


    Comment by Tom Renjilian — December 10, 2008 @ 5:07 pm

  6. Perhaps the functions of bad dreams and nightmares (bad dreams which wake us) are in some way related to this. Either can force us to repeatedly face fears. Levin and Nielsen have proposed that bad dreams have the function of fear-extinction. These dreams expose us to fears in various contexts, and if they are not paired with any unconditioned stimulus, classical conditioning extinguishes the fear. Nightmares in this view are an interruption of the fear extinction process. This could be considered dysfunctional, but it seems to me that some fears should not be extinguished. Fear of an angry bear can easily be seen as adaptive, so the extinction of this fear would then be maladaptive. Perhaps bad dreams have the function of eliminating maladaptive fears, while nightmares have the function of preserving adaptive fears.


    Levin, R., & Nielsen, T. A. (2007). Disturbed dreaming, posttraumatic stress
    disorder, and affect distress: a review and neurocognitive model.
    Psychological Bulletin, 133, 482-528.

    Comment by Josh Eike — December 13, 2008 @ 2:31 am

  7. In 2004 Lisa Wuyek, a University of Toledo graduate student, conducted a study focusing on exposure treatment to overcome anxiety disorders. For this study, UT students with severe anxiety-inducing fears fill out a consent and confidentiality form, as well as an anxiety questionnaire. This survey provides Wuyek with an understanding of the subjects’ anxiety levels and background of their problems. Exposure therapy aims to alleviate phobias by bringing the subject into contact with their fears in a single session. These sessions last from one- to two- hours. Some believe that this type of therapy would be more detrimental, but Wuyek’s results and other similar studies have shown that they are incredibly effective and efficient. By the end of most sessions, the subjects are completely at ease with the source of their fear.
    Wuyek states that specific fears, such as fear of snakes, cats, heights, etc. are more responsive to exposure treatment, while complex disorders like social anxiety and obsessive compulsive take multiple sessions of treatment to overcome. During the session, small steps are taken toward closer contact with the source of fear as the subject’s anxiety level drops. Wuyek monitored the subjects’ reactions, asking them about their comfort level, the intensity of anxiety, and any physical reactions they noticed.
    People are still debating what type of exposure yields the best results. Some believe that short periods of time, slowly increasing contact, yield better outcomes than Yuyek’s longer sessions. Nonetheless, the study of exposure treatment continues to validate the idea that facing your fear does help reduce anxiety disorders; although, the most effective way to do this is still controversial.

    Reichardt, Kristin (2004, October 4). Overcoming phobias focus of graduate study. Retrieved December 13, 2008, from Facing a fear factor Web site:

    Comment by Elissa Lim — December 14, 2008 @ 4:24 pm

  8. It seems like this solution to phobias might be a bit simplistic. For example, the “face your fears” approach seems somewhat insufficient in addressing phobias like school phobia, as described in this article from the New York Times:
    Children with school phobia are paralyzed by the pressures of the academic setting, often to the extent that they stop going to school at all for some period of time. If we think about this in terms of conditioning, there is no way to remove the stimulus of competition and criticism at school, and so continued exposure to the school environment likely wouldn’t decrease the level of anxiety. Similarly, it is unrealistic to rely on a sense of “learned safety” in this situation, because the stimulus causing the anxiety response is unlikely to change. Instead, long term issues like fear of failure and fear of separation need to be addressed.

    Comment by Cait Burhans — December 14, 2008 @ 7:06 pm

  9. One of my younger brothers has a mild case of arachnophobia. If he sees a spider, then he will leave the room, without much panic. However, when I pick up smashed spiders and bring it within close proximity of my brother, he reacts violently. I would often justify my fun by saying, “C’mon, you have to face your fears!” He still is uncomfortable with spiders, despite numerous sessions!
    My point is, I think that a patient’s willingness to get over his problem is a crucial part of the healing process. Things can just get worse, otherwise.
    I still have a bruise from the last time I tried to “cure” my bro.

    Comment by Joseph Kim — December 14, 2008 @ 10:00 pm

  10. For the longest time, I was terribly afraid of dogs. When I was young, I just had bad experiences with both big dogs and small dogs. I used to follow my mom to her friend’s house all the time. My mom’s friend’s dog was really hyper and jumped on me and scratched my legs. My mom’s friend had scratch marks running all up and down her legs. It barked loudly, had long nails… it was vicious. Growing up, it’s understandable that I had this aversion to dogs. But the weird part was that I didn’t immediately jump straight to avoiding dogs altogether. My first reaction was still to pet a dog when I saw one, but then back away when it came too close. If it started barking, chasing me, or jumping on me–forget it, I was gone. I would run away, stand somewhere where the dog wouldn’t reach me, use other people as a shield, etc. Walking home from school, if a dog was in a fenced area of someone’s front yard and started barking as I walked past, I often jumped or started walking quickly to get past it as soon as possible.

    Now, I am less fearful of dogs, although sometimes I do back away if teeth are bared. But I think this is due in part to the fact that being stressed out over my junior and senior year in high school made my fear of dogs seem much less significant. But maybe it’s also because of the fact that everyone on my block decided to get a dog.. or a combination of everything. Realizing that my fear was irrational, and overexposure to the unconditioned stimulus had helped me somewhat overcome my fear. The simple just “facing your fears” solution to overcoming fears seems irrational. Although reading some techniques used by therapists known as “cognitive-behavioral” techniques seem equally as irrational ( I just don’t see people willing to keep diaries of their moods, or intentionally exaggerating their fears in order to “get over them.”

    Comment by Julia Tsang — December 4, 2009 @ 5:13 pm

  11. Sometimes facing a fear cannot teach someone to partially, but never wholly, overcome that fear.

    I had terrible stage fright growing up. I remember in 5th grade I was cast as Santa Claus in a Christmas play. As I stepped out in front of the audience my voice disappeared, my pupils dilated, and my mind went blank. My teacher whispered my lines to me so that the scenes could finish.

    Many performances later, I still get stage fright but I am able to mitigate my fight or flight response so that I can perform effectively.
    This is because each time I have performed I have realized that my fear of performing is linked with my anticipation of the audience’s judgement of my performance.

    To me the enjoyment of performing is about constantly facing that fear, and giving into it. If that fear was gone then the act of performing would lose some of its excitement.

    Continually facing a fear doesn’t always yield black and white results of fear conquered or not conquered as parts of this post imply. In reality many people’s fears often are dormant or mitigated over time and never wholly dismissed.

    Comment by Evan Herdrich — March 19, 2012 @ 5:41 am

    • I apologize for the spelling error.

      In the above comment ‘cannot’ should be ‘can’.

      Comment by Evan Herdrich — March 19, 2012 @ 5:50 am

  12. I can completely relate to the idea of stage fright, and how this fear is in fact indicative of deeper concerns. Stage fright for me is not so much a fear of being in front of a crowd and performing, but rather a fear of being judged negatively on that performance. Overcoming stage fright for the first time years ago was very difficult because I had no past experience to reassure me. However, now any stage fright that I feel is more exciting than scary, because I have positive associations with performing. Once a fear is overcome, it can often be used as a motivator. Even if the situation remains scary, the knowledge that you can overcome it makes it easier to deal with.

    Comment by Carly Belko — April 30, 2012 @ 10:18 pm

  13. I know that exposing individuals to their fear of heights or clowns can desensitize them to the stimuli, thus decreasing their fear of it, but I am still skeptical of the conclusion that conditioning can eliminate fear. In the study with the mice, they were conditioned to be afraid of the white noise and then conditioned not to be afraid of it. Though they may have “overcome” their fear of the white noise, they did not conquer their fear of the shock, which was the main stimulus they were afraid of. I agree that the act of facing one’s fears can help to a certain degree, I am just unsure how far this theory can extend.

    Comment by Korina Tolbert — February 22, 2013 @ 1:33 pm

  14. I can understand the need to overcome some irrational fears, such as fear of clowns or public speaking, but this study made me think a lot about the reason that we experience fear and its evolutionary use. There are some things that perhaps we are meant to be afraid of and would be better off having a healthy dose of fear about. For example, a couple of years I got sucked out into a rip current and almost drowned. It was a terrifying experience and now I am a lot more careful when going into the ocean. This fear and respect for the ocean is, I believe, healthy and I would not necessarily want to get rid of it. Because fear is there for a reason and is there to keep up safe. However, I can see the benefit of learning to face your fears in a more rational way so that you are able to experience anxiety more productively and learn to react in stressful/fearful situations. But I would never advocate from purging all fear from your system.

    Comment by Isabella Johnson — April 29, 2013 @ 11:39 am

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