There simply are few emotions that are more powerful and can be so useful as fear. As with any very strong emotion, fear causes physiological changes in our bodies. This is not where it ends, though. It can motivate us, protect us from harm, and augment other emotions. And lets clarify: Fear is an emotion. It is not a physical response. The physical response only occurs after we experience the emotion. (If it was purely physical, it would have nothing to do with psychology.)
Let’s look at each of these:
Motivation through fear can come in many forms. For instance, in a struggling marriage, the husband and wife may be motivated to work harder together to make it work, from the fear of what a break up might cause. Children learn and are motivated to learn what they must in order to be productive members of society, partly from the fear of punishment or even the ridicule they might receive if they don’t. A poor employee may be motivated to work harder and become a better employee out of the fear of losing their job. The fear can even motivate a person to extend themselves far beyond their normal abilities and to survive at times when survival is unlikely.
This goes along with the protection from harm. A person, trapped in the wilderness, may be so motivated by fear that they survive the ordeal far longer than anyone believes them able to. There are a huge number of such stories, where something like this has happened to someone. In fact, think about some of the most basic lessons most of us have learned. Why do you not put your hand in a fire or on a hot stove, purposely? Probably because you’ve had the experience of being burned, and have a healthy fear and respect for things that are hot enough to burn you. This is just one of many examples.
Fear augments other emotions by activating the emotional centers of the brain. This is why we may often feel other emotions very sharply; love, rage, or others, when we are filled with fear. The synapses are already firing and very active.
All of this is positive, but fear also has a darker side. Specifically irrational fear, which can be paralyzing and may do no good at all, or even the opposite. Probably everybody has experienced worries and fears about something that might happen, that never did. Emotions are closely linked to the imaginative part of our mind, so we will often be afraid of the worse case scenario, rather than considering the best case scenario. This does little but increase stress and cause all manner of physical ailments that may or may not be treatable. Dealing with these would be a topic for another article, but it is very important for us to acknowledge this dark side of fear, which makes it far easier to control.
Our emotions would not be complete without the emotion of fear, and it helps us in a many great ways, helping us to grow, and protecting us. But no examination of this emotion would be complete without also considering that fear is not always productive. Only this will let us get a handle on it, and to truly appreciate it.
Fear can be a negative emotion, but it doesn’t need to be. The choice is ours.