man looking out the window

Why Is It Useful To Have Healthy Fears And How Do We Distinguish Them With Unhealthy Fears?

Nowadays, society has engineered ‘fear’ into becoming an attribute for someone weak. However, this notion is untrue because fear is simply our body’s response to a given threat – it makes us humane, and it is completely normal. Although fear is commonly viewed in a negative light, there are also several benefits of fear within our community: it helps to prevent the mechanisation of human beings, where everyone thinks and reacts to things in the same way. How disturbing would that be? Fears can be classified into two categories, which are healthy fears and unhealthy fears.

What is an unhealthy fear?

An example of an unhealthy fear is anxiety that is oftentimes excessive and long-lasting, it is concern over stimuli that pose no risk or danger whatsoever. These fears may seem completely irrational to people who don’t personally feel them, while for others the reasons behind their fear are so evident that it causes distress and panic. Unhealthy fears are usually known as ‘phobias’.
Examples of unhealthy fears would include trypophobia, which is the fear of clusters of holes and irregular patterns. If you don’t have trypophobia, you may be wondering, “why would someone be afraid of holes?” Sure, the patterns of seeds on a lotus flower may be slightly unnerving to you, but for others, a glimpse may make their skin crawl and cause them to start screaming (I’ve seen this in action).
hands clasped in worry

What are healthy fears?

Healthy fear can be defined as temporary, short-lived anxiety over a stimulus to ensure your survival, or for the greater good. In other words, healthy fear is a survival instinct – it triggers a fight or flight response that will benefit you. An example of healthy fear is being afraid to jump off of a balcony, with the rationale that it will cause you injuries or in extreme cases, death. This fear prevents you from consequences that would bring you harm, with good reasoning to support it.
There are several benefits of having healthy fears:

1. Protects you from danger

As mentioned before, having a healthy fear can help you to survive and avert yourself from dangerous situations. These situations aren’t necessarily life-or-death situations like being on a battlefield. They could be simple, everyday scenarios such as seeing flames on the stove. Your body’s natural reaction to the fire would be to back away from it and to avoid putting any of your body parts near it, in fear of burning yourself. Your ‘fight or flight’ response (an adrenaline rush) is triggered to allow this to occur. Therefore, the idea that fears are weak traits can be refuted; it is not weak to put your safety before other things. As the old folks’ saying goes: ‘Pride comes before the fall’, dropping the ego and admitting your fears can sometimes prevent you from the fall.
girl with mask

2. Helps you to make rational decisions

It goes without saying that fears influence our daily choices. Having healthy fears can help us to be wiser in choosing what we do, thus allowing us to live better lives. Not only could it ensure our safety; it could help us to save time or money. Usually, these decisions are less of an immediate threat, rather it is a concern for something that could happen in the future. An example of this could be deciding whether to drink alcohol before driving from Johor to Melaka. From prior knowledge of the media and by using common sense, you would be afraid of the risks that would result from drinking before driving: being under the influence of alcohol means that you are more prone to car accidents, which is a bad thing, and this indirect fear of death helps you to make a rational choice that will keep you out of trouble (and keep you alive! Please, don’t drink and drive, guys).

3. You can learn from healthy fears

Although this may sound cliché, healthy fears allow you to learn from your mistakes so that you don’t repeat them in the future. This is because healthy fears allow you to adapt to new knowledge – you’re not stuck within a state of cyclical, constant panic. Unhealthy fears, on the contrary, mean that your brain constantly loops back to processing stimuli, which causes anxiety buildup, leading to phobias. Therefore, healthy fears prove to be useful to you so that your brain can consciously help you to avoid problems associated with your fears.
girl smiling at laptop

How do we distinguish between healthy and unhealthy fears?

Unhealthy fears, as mentioned before, keep you stuck in a cycle of fear, and your brain is unable to recognise that you can move on from the stimulus and learn from your experience. For some people, these fears can trigger anxiety attacks, which is unhealthy for their well-being. So, to help you tell the difference between healthy and unhealthy fears, here are three questions to ask yourself:

1. What are you afraid of? Be specific!

Are you specific enough with your fear? I used to have an unhealthy fear of snakes, which arguably, can be dangerous. However, not all species of snakes can harm you. After realising this, I trained my mind to narrow it down: now, I am not afraid of snakes, but I still have a lingering fear of getting bitten by snakes. By being specific with what I’m afraid of, I am able to quit the cycle of panicking excessively every time I see a snake, but rather, focus on identifying whether the snake is venomous or not and whether it is necessary to back away from it.

2. What is your reasoning behind this fear? Is it a sensible reason?

Some people don’t have solid reasoning behind why they are afraid of something. Following up on the trypophobia (fear of holes) example, when I asked my friend, “Why are you afraid of holes?”, he replied, “I don’t know! It just looks disgusting!”, which doesn’t exactly justify his fear, because I didn’t see holes as something gross. Yet, this is something he’s struggled with for 17 years of his life. In cases where you can’t find a ‘real’ reason behind your fears, it is an unhealthy fear, and you should try to consult a professional to help you sort it out. Just note that although getting over a fear isn’t impossible, for many people, it is difficult because that’s just how their brain works. Therefore, you should be patient if you’re wanting to dispose of your phobias, and as a layperson, you should be understanding if someone is afraid of something you think of as normal.
man looking out the window

3. How much distress does the stimulus to your fear cause you?

One of the most important pointers for healthy and unhealthy fears include how much stress the fear puts on you, or how paranoid you are of the world that you put up all kinds of measures to avert the stimuli. For example, someone’s fear of bugs may cause them to panic at the thought of a hiking trip in the jungle. Again, certain bugs could be harmful, but bugs exist in such abundant quantities across the globe that they are almost impossible to avoid. This fact can put constant stress on the person, which makes the fear unhealthy. The best advice is to consult an expert who can attempt to help you ease out of your fears, bit by bit. I believe in you!
All in all, we should learn to respect what others are and aren’t brave enough to face instead of judging them. Instead, we should give them support and encouragement, so that eventually, all of us will remain only with our healthy fears, and our lifestyle will improve.

Someone who finds comfort in being immersed in the art of stringing words together, whether it be in the form of intricate poetry or short stories. She is always on the lookout for new opportunities to express her love for literature (and cats!) alongside decreasing the height of her ever-growing reading list. She is currently rigorously studying at Marlborough College Malaysia as she ventures to find her path in life.

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