California State University, Northridge

Fear and Anxiety

By Carissa Kelvens
(spring 1997)

Everyone has felt a little anxious at one time or another. It may have been when you were dealing with issues of work, school, or relationships with family, friends, or significant others. You may also have felt fear about something in particular. For example, fear of heights, closed spaces, or spiders. In the field of psychology there are several different theories of the motivation of fear and anxiety. The cognitive, biological, and learning perspectives on the motivation of fear and anxiety will be discussed.

There is an overall basic distinction between fear and anxiety. Anxiety is a vague unpleasant emotional state with qualities of apprehension, dread, distress, and uneasiness. In addition it is objectless. Fear is similar to anxiety except that fear has a specific object. When some optimal level of stimulation or arousal is exceeded, one experiences anxiety. It can be an adaptive healthy response or a debilitating one. In the latter case mentioned, one may lose a large measure of ability to think, act, and perform. Anxiety is manifested in three ways: in a person's thoughts (cognitively), in a person's actions (behaviorally), and in physiological reactions.

Biological Perspective

According to the biological perspective, there are three basic conditions which elicit anxiety: overstimulation, cognitive incongruity, and response unavailability. Overstimulation refers to when a person is flooded with information. Cognitive incongruity is when a person has difficulty reconciling with some event, for example, the loss of a loved one. Response unavailability refers to when a person does not know how to handle a difficult situation.

According to the biological theory, the GABA system is responsible for the motivation of fear and anxiety. GABA is known as Gamma-Amino Butyric Acid, it is a naturally occurring transmitter inhibitor. It is a substance in the body which helps us to maintain an optimal flow of stimulation or information thereby reducing the flow of neural transmission. There are GABA receptor sites which the GABA will bind and produce the effects mentioned previously. The ability to bind is not fixed, and is dependent on the presence of benzodiapines.

Benzodiapines are anti-anxiety drugs such as Valium, Librium, and Alprazolam, which help regulate neural transmissions. The body naturally produces this chemical, but it has not yet been isolated. When the benzodiapines bind to the sites, it increases the ability of GABA to bind to its own receptor sites (Tallman et al., 1980). The GABA receptors then trigger the opening of Chloride channels which leads to a decrease in the firing rate of critical neurons in many parts of the Central Nervous System. Those who experience more anxiety than others, fail to produce or release benzodiapines which are necessary for the amount of GABA needed to regulate neural transmission.

In addition to decreasing anxiety, benzodiazepines induce sleep, relax the muscles, and decrease the likelihood of convulsions. Years ago, barbiturates, another class of drugs were used to control anxiety. Barbiturates are a class of tranquilizers which are effective in reducing anxiety, but have two drawbacks. If combined with alcohol, the combination may cause death. In addition, barbiturates are strongly habit forming.

Cognitive Perspective

There are three reasons for the motivation of fear and anxiety from the cognitive perspective; loss of control, inability to make a coping response, and state anxiety versus trait anxiety. Loss of control refers to a situation when there are unpredictable or uncontrollable events in one's life which lead to anxiety and/or depression. As a result, feelings of helplessness develop. The unpredictability which may be associated with a task may cause anxiety (Seligman, 1975). The inability or perceived inability to make an adaptive response to a threatening event or the fact or perception that no such response is available will lead to feelings of anxiety. Since anxiety is very ambiguous, it is the key which prevents the elaboration of clear action patterns to handle the situation effectively (Lazarus, 1991).

According to the cognitive perspective, the most effective way to deal with the anxiety is to transform the anxiety into fear. Then one will know exactly what is bothering them. Then a plan should be devised to deal with what is feared. Another notion of coping responses is whether a person is self certain or not (Baumgardner, 1990, as cited by Franken, 1994). Self- certain people are those who know their own strengths and weaknesses. People who are not self-certain only know their strengths. And since they do not know their own weaknesses, there is a lack of knowledge, thus an inability to create an effective coping response. These tend to be insecure, whereas self-certain people tend to have better self esteem. Self-certain people tend to make plans to deal with their weaknesses. According to the cognitive perspective, one creates coping responses by transforming the anxiety into fear, and develops a plan to deal with it, which will create a sense of security.

State and trait anxiety refers to the personality traits of an individual. State anxiety is a transitory emotional response involving feelings of tension and apprehension, and Trait anxiety refers to an enduring characteristic of a person that can be used to explain a person's behavioral consistencies, and determines the likelihood a person will experience anxiety in stressful situations. For example, some people spend considerable time on a particular action or behavior such as continuously checking to see if the door is locked.

It has also been suggested that people can be generally categorized into two groups; sensitizers and repressors (Franken, 1994). Sensitizers tend to dwell on potential consequences of a threat and thus experience more anxiety, whereas repressors avoid thinking about consequences and may experience less anxiety and stress at that particular moment. Neither response is considered an adaptive one. A recommended solution, according to the cognitive perspective, is to recognize that one has a problem and think of a way to handle it.

Learning Perspective

Anxiety is a acquirable or conditioned drive which functions to motivate avoidance responding (Mowrer, 1939). Therefore, the avoidance response is assumed to be reinforced by a reduction in anxiety. Fear is a conditioned response to pain. If one experiences pain in a specific situation, the stimuli associated with that situation acquires the ability to evoke the same emotional reaction that the pain originally elicited (Miller, 1948).

Many early experiments studying fear and anxiety involved the use of pain, when the avoidance learning paradigm was created. Animals (often rats or dogs) were placed in a shuttle box. a barrier divided the space into two areas. The animals were administered a painful shock to the feet, but had the ability to escape through an open door. For rats, the door could be opened by rotating a wheel above the door, by the experimenter, or by pressing a bar depending on the trial (Miller, 1948). When the rat was placed in the apparatus and the door closed, this started an electric clock, which was a warning sound. According to the avoidance learning paradigm, a participant must learn to make some response to avoid an aversive stimulus. When the response is made early, any anxiety that occurs is immediately reduced (Solomon and Wynne, 1954). The reduction in anxiety evolves into the reinforcer of the avoidance response. As a result of Pavlovian conditioning, this problem can persist for a long time in the absence of reinforcement.

Humans tend to exhibit less fear when encountered with a symbolic form of a stimulus, and extreme fear of a concrete stimulus. For example, a picture of a spider will not evoke as much fear as an actual spider. There are two methods of counterconditioning which will eliminate the stimulus: desensitization and flooding. Desensitization takes place when successive presentations of the stimulus are administered, with a milder stimulus being presented first. After the client is relaxed, a stronger stimulus is presented. This procedure is continued until the client is completely relaxed when presented with the concrete stimulus.

When the method of flooding is used, the client is presented with the actual stimulus and the full emotional reaction is permitted to run its course. The client must remain there throughout the process. When the reaction subsides, a new reduced emotional response is conditioned to the stimulus. Over continued and repeated presentations of the stimulus, the reaction will eventually diminish.

Fear and Anxiety as an Adaptive Response

The James-Lange Theory argues that the basis of emotional experiences are based on peripheral and physiological sensations such as heart rate and blood pressure. Fear and anxiety can be an adaptive response when one is confronted with an event that threatens their survival. Humans experience a kind of fight or flight response. Overall, sensory feedback controls emotional expression. Mild to moderate anxiety. It is clear that high levels of anxiety and fear can lead to impaired psychological functioning, intellectual errors, and disturb concentration and memory. Yet, there is evidence that suggests that moderate levels of anxiety may serve as an adaptive function. For example, a study of anxiety levels of patients undergoing minor surgery discovered that patients with moderate anxiety did better postsurgically than those with high anxiety or minimal anxiety (Manyande et al., 1992). The two hormones related to stress were higher in the relaxed group (administered relaxation training) than in the control group (listened to a 15 minute informative tape about the surgical procedure).

It is believed that moderate anticipatory anxiety about realistic threats is necessary for the development of coping behavior. From an existentialist perspective, moderate anxiety is an appropriate response as an adaptive function to particular events or threats in one's life. This anxiety can be used as a motivation to change oneself or adapt to the situation.


The amount and severity of anxiety that is faced is important in determining whether it will impair the functioning of an individual. There are several different perspectives on the motivations of fear and anxiety: cognitive, learned and physiological. I think that there is always some physiological reaction that occurs when an individual experiences fear and anxiety. And I believe both the cognitive and learned perspectives help us understand the motivations of fear and anxiety. Conditions may vary from situation to situation or culture to culture. Being afraid of spiders is a product of one's experiences in the environment. And if one is attacked at night while walking home, the motivation behind one's fear and anxiety may be a complex relationship of all three perspectives.

Web Resources

Panic attacks, anxiety, shyness, phobias: Are they running your life?
This site is hosted by the University of Washington Health Science Center, "Health Beat". It describes the various types of anxiety disorders, and has links to other related sites for research and applications.
NARSAD: Update on Potential Causes and New Treatments for Anxiety Disorders.
Discusses the definitions, prevalence rates, treatments, and causes of anxiety disorders.
Provides a very brief definition of anxiety, and distinguishes between state and trait anxiety.
Research reveals clues to who suffers panic attacks .
Discussion of what characteristics and biological predispositions can help predict panic attacks.
Anxiety Disorders.
Discusses several different anxiety disorders. Provides some prevalence rates of phobias. Provides eleven resources with phone numbers and addresses for obtaining more information concerning fear or anxiety.