This is Where Your Fear Comes From (and How to Get Rid of It)

Originally published Friday, 28 March 2014.

This blog post first appeared over at - you can read more about Allison there! 

Have you ever noticed how fear seems to creep up on you when you least expect it? Maybe you’re afraid of things you realize you shouldn’t be afraid of, things you should be able to reason your way around, and yet, every time you turn around, there’s the fear again, rearing its ugly head.

Photo Credit: Elliot Brown, Creative Commons

Recently I was on an airplane, a few rows behind a mom and her young son, and watching the two of them interact helped me understand why this might happen.

The flight was rough from beginning to end.

Before we even left the ground, the pilot informed us of an electrical problem that would need to be dealt with before we could take off. The ground crew was working on it, he explained, and we waited for 45 minutes.

By the time we did take off, you could tell the everyone on board was a little tense. Probably most of it was just that we had been waiting, but I’m sure part of it was that we were wondering to ourselves: if there was an electrical problem with the plane, are you sure it’s safe to fly this thing…?

To add to all of this, the flight itself was turbulent. The pilot came over the intercom and told everyone to expect rough air the entire way, that he would leave the fasten seat belt sign on until we reached our destination.

Meanwhile, I watched the mom and young son in front of me.

She talked him through the entire process. When the pilot informed us of the electrical problem with the plane, she told her son, “don’t worry sweetie. There’s a problem with the plane, but the pilot is going to fix it.” When it was time to take off, she said, “here we go, sweetie. Don’t be scared, everything is going to be okay.”

She looked all darty-eyed and stressed. He looked out the window, wide-eyed and curious.

When the turbulence started to get bad after take-off, you could hear the tone of the mom’s voice change. Every word that came out of her mouth sounded squeaky. At one point, the plane sunk and we all felt our stomachs drop. The young boy yelled, “wheee!”

The mom replied, loudly (and still squeaky): “Oh no! Sweetie! Don’t be scared!!! We’re going to be okay!”

Suddenly the young boy’s face went from curious to concerned.

He nuzzled up into his mom’s armpit and furrowed his brow, clearly worried. The two of them cuddled together, and yet I couldn’t help but wonder who was comforting who, now.

I noticed something fascinating in that moment:

Fear is learned.

As I watched the young boy’s demeanor turn, I realized the fear he felt in that moment wasn’t really his own response to the circumstances. Sure, the flight we were experiencing was  a little bit rough, but the roughness didn’t bother him. In fact, his natural response had been: “wheee!”


And yet as soon as he realized his mom was panicking, he panicked too. She did her best to hide it, always using her words to focus on the positive, and yet he picked it up.

It was almost like fear was contagious. Isn’t that weird?

It made me think about how fear works in our lives.

I started thinking about the things I’m afraid of—running out of money, making a fool of myself, being a bad friend—and I realized that I’ve never actually had a situation that would warrant me being afraid of these things. I mean, sure, I’ve had a little bump in the road here and there, but nothing life-threatening. Nothing beyond fixing.

And yet, often fear dictates my reality. It makes me move prematurely fromcuriosity to concern (like the little boy on the plane). It causes me to blow things out of proportion (like the mom).

It takes an experience I would describe as “whee!” and changes it to one I would resist experiencing again.

But it helps me to know this is where fear comes from—

It helps me head fear off at the pass, before I take on fear that isn’t my own. It helps me see how I was born with an internal longing for risk (“whee!”) and keep myself from turning too quickly to concern.

I wonder if it might help you, too—to see where you’ve been convinced to be afraid, without really getting a decision.

I wonder if it might help you take that choice back.

I hope it will keep us from being the kind of people who feel fear unnecessarily, who spread fear to others, who miss what life has to offer because we’ve “caught” fear like one might catch the flu while flying on a plane…

{Note: I don’t want this to read like a parenting critique. I’m not a parent, and although I could be an excellent parent of purely hypothetical children, I have no place to critique this mom, or any mom for that matter. What I noticed here was more about the transfer of fear than anything else.}