Motivation and emotion/Book/2014/Fear and coping

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Fear and coping:
How do people cope with fear?
Scared Child at Nighttime.jpg

Overview[edit | edit source]

Fear is a common emotion which many people face in their day to day lives. Whether this fear is an irrational fear or phobia of someone who cannot leave the house or a child afraid of the dark, both these people are experiencing a form of a perceived threat. Although many people experience fear, many people are able to press on with their day to day lives with little to no interruption. Fear can be a crippling emotion and without effective coping strategies it can have lasting effects. This poses the question, how do people cope with fear? This book chapter will look to explain this using the theoretical concepts behind coping and current research of how different demographics of people cope in potentially threatening situations. This book chapter will aim to:

  • Explain the basic concepts
  • Examine the different types of coping
  • Briefly introduce some theories of emotional coping
  • Explore the research on how people cope with fear

What is fear?[edit | edit source]

Fear is an emotion which can vary in strength and effect on the individual. Many psychologists consider fear as a natural and subtle emotion which can have debilitating effects physiologically and physically (Izard, 2007). The emotion of fear is a person’s response to a situation or environment deemed to be dangerous which could potentially cause pain or harm (Izard, 2007).

Aracnophobia (fear of spiders) is a very common phobia (Stangier, Consbrusch, Schramm & Heidenreich, 2014)

How fears differ from phobias[edit | edit source]

A fear is a person’s natural response to an environment which could be deemed threatening or potentially harmful, but fears can also manifest and become irrational. This is when fears become unnatural and there is something more severe occurring.

Phobias[edit | edit source]

A phobia is defined by as a fear which is persistent and has to be deemed to be excessive or unreasonable and is cued by a specific stimuli or situation (American Psychiatric Association, 2013). The response must evoke an involuntary response which, may result in crying, freezing or a panic attack. This irrational fear must also be detrimental to the person’s normal way of living and interrupt academic (situational) functioning and social activities or relationships (American Psychiatric Association, 2013). Most common forms of phobias are social phobias which result as some situation which require interaction with people, animal phobias such as |Arachnophobia (fear of spiders) and natural environment phobias such as fear of height (Stangier, Consbrusch, Schramm & Heidenreich, 2014).

What is coping and what are the different types of coping?[edit | edit source]

Coping is the psychological process of tolerating, solving or too lessen stress or conflicts using a conscious effort to do so (Lazaurus, 1966). When faced with a potentially harmful situation or the feeling of fear, coping strategies will consciously begin to rationalise, and react to the potential threat. This means that coping is a dynamic process that shifts in nature between different stages after a stressful situation (Carver, Scheier & Weintraub, 1989).

What effect do individual differences have on coping?[edit | edit source]

Firstly, some research suggests that these individual differences in how people cope are essential in understanding the various coping strategies available. As coping is a process which changes from stage to stage locking into one coping style can be seen as counterproductive as this can hinder a person’s flexibility to change coping strategy and response if the circumstances or situation changes (Carver, Scheier & Weintraub, 1989). This can be taken a step further as some research suggests that ways of emotional coping may be derived from a person’s specific personality traits and that perhaps these personality traits could be used to predict effective coping (Carver, Scheier & Weintraub, 1989).

Positive and Negative coping[edit | edit source]

Positive and negative coping thoughts differ from each other as Negative coping is the interference of the goal behaviour to diminish the stress or conflict (Schwartz, 1986). Conversely positive coping is when thoughts and action which facilitate the conscious effort to cope (Schwartz, 1986). This dimension between positive and negative coping suggests that this thought has a functional role when analysing goal related outcomes (Schwartz, 1986).This positive coping avoids negative appraisals, such as harm, loss, or potential threats (Knoll & Schwarzer, 2003). Research suggests that this positive-negative aspect appears restrictive but is a fundamental part of emotional coping (Schwartz, 1986).

Active and Passive Coping[edit | edit source]

Similarly to Positive and Negative Coping, Active and Passive coping refer to a similar concept but remain on opposite ends of the spectrum from each other. Active coping has a theoretical basis in Fight-or-flight and comes in to effect if the stress or threat is escapable (Bandler, Keay, Floyd & Price, 2000). Comparatively passive coping strategies refer to situations where they are considered inescapable, these can be categorised by immobility or decreased responsiveness to the environment or situation (Bandler, Keay, Floyd & Price, 2000). Passive coping is also known to facilitate in recovery when the potentially threatening situation is over (Bandler, Keay, Floyd & Price, 2000).

Quiz 1[edit | edit source]

1 How do phobias differ from fears?

The response must be involuntary
The phobia must be interfering in one's normal life
It is cued by a certain situation or stimuli
All of the above

2 Thoughts and actions facilitate conscious efforts to cope describe _________ coping; while _________ coping describes when there is an interference of the goal behaviour to diminish the stress or conflict.

Positive; negative
Negative; positive
Active; passive
Passive; active

Coping Theories[edit | edit source]

Objects Relation Theory[edit | edit source]

Object Relation Theory which derives from psychodynamic theory, suggests that during infancy people’s adult lives are shaped by their family experiences and the experiences they have with others (Kernberg, 1984). The theory was highly influenced by Sigmund Freud, who suggested that severe problems which occur in later adulthood were a result of a defensive function for someone who experienced an emotion such as fear where the Ego was split into two halves. The half which showed his awareness and consideration of reality and the other half which refused to accept this reality (Kernberg, 1984). Since Freud’s work, Object Relation Theory has been studied by many psychologists to understand how people cope with emotions. Recent takes on Object Relation Theory have also used aspects of Attachment theory as attachment explains important aspects of Objects Relation Theory (Flanagan, 2011). Current theory sees these irregular behaviours occurring as a result of inner lowliness or turmoil occurring due to a lack of soothing when faced with an emotion such as fear. Objects Relations Theory highlights the need for frequent and quality of support when growing through the early stages of life, if this care is absent it can result in detrimental conditions in adulthood. This also shows that attachment is not just important for physical well-being but also psychological well-being (Flanagan, 2011). Another important aspect is the need for balance between quality attachment and the ability to be separate from care givers. This is important for later development and the ability to be alone and enjoy occasional solitude (Flanagan, 2011).

Repression Sensitization[edit | edit source]

This theory refers to two ends of a spectrum in which people respond and cope when exposed to stressful situations (Krohne, 2002). When exposed to a stressful encounter or when a person experiences fear, this theory suggests that on one end of this spectrum is repressors. These people will deny or diminish the feeling of stress, not acknowledge that this is occurring and not visualize or think of any negative consequences which may occur due to this situation (Krohne, 2002). At the opposite end of the spectrum there are sensitizers which refers to people who react to stressful situations by extensively look at research to gain information, reflect on the situation excessively and irrational worrying (Krohne, 2002). This theory may suggest why people act differently than others when faced with a situation which there may be a perceived threat and why this may vary in intensity. This theory is used with current research[factual?].

Monitoring and Blunting[edit | edit source]

A coping strategy proposed by Miller (1980) which followed on from Repression Sensitization theory that suggested that people who are faced with a stressful situation or a perceived threat will react with an arousal level in conjunction to the amount of focus on the stressor (Krohne, 2002). During Monitoring and Blunting arousal levels can be lowered, if the persons involved can reduce the potentially threatening situation by either using as denial or distraction. But this is only blunting, when the threatening event is out of the persons control (Krohne, 2002). If this control is present then people will search for information on about the situation, this is a more adaptive form of coping called monitoring. These strategies lead to the individual to gain control over a stressful situation, with monitoring being the more effective form of coping (Krohne, 2002).

People can use denial or distraction to cope with fear (Krohne, 2002).

The Model of Coping Modes[edit | edit source]

The Model of Coping Modes is one of the more recent coping strategies which is mostly an extension of Monitoring and Blunting. This theory specifically changes from a theory which focuses on avoidance or proactive behaviour to a theory which focuses on a more cognitive motivational based theory (Krohne, 2002). It suggests that the more aversive the stimuli and the more uncertain the person is of the situation, the higher the stress, anxiety or level of fear there will be. Emotional arousal and uncertainty will result in high levels of anxiety and therefore inhibit the ability to process situational cues or the uncertainty will trigger aggressive behaviour (Krohne, 2002).

Circumplex Model of Emotion[edit | edit source]

Lastly, the Circumplex Model of Emotion which was first proposed by James Russell (1980) suggested that emotions are best represented as a circular two dimensional bipolar space. Russell used two forms of research to gather his evidence, how previous research conceptualized affective states and also a multivariate self-reported analysis of affective states (1980). After gathering all the self-reported data, a total of 28 emotions and moods were allocated to eight categories . After all the research was gathered Russell plotted all twenty eight words on a 360◦ scale with the horizontal axis representing pleasure and displeasure while the vertical axis represented degree of arousal (Russell, 1980). The circumplex model of emotion supported Russell’s hypothesis that affect space is bipolar with antonyms falling 180◦ apart (1980). This model also gives an accurate depiction of where fear or being afraid (feeling fear or anxiety) lands in comparison to arousal and pleasure. With the feeling of being afraid sitting at approximately half way between peak arousal and peak displeasure[grammar?].

Quiz 2[edit | edit source]

1 Which theory of coping derives from Psychodynamic theory?

Circumplex Model of Emotion
The Model of Coping Modes
Repression Sensitization
Object Relations Theory

2 ________ can occur when the threatening event is out of one's control; while ________ can occur when this control is present.

Blunting; monitoring
Monitoring; Blunting
Passive coping; active coping
Positive coping; negative coping

Current Research[edit | edit source]

Now that fears have been explained and recent theories of coping have been described, the current research on how certain people cope with fear will be discussed. How people cope with fear is a very broad topic which has been researched extensively, and therefore the following coping methods have been broken up into demographics of the population such as how youths, adults and different cultures cope with fear and how these differ from each other.

Neurological factors[edit | edit source]

Some researchers have investigated how the brain works in terms of coping with fear, as humans must instinctively respond to potentially threatening environments without any specific coping strategy in place (Metna-Laurent, Sorio-Gomez, Verrier, Conforzi, Jego & Lafenetre, 2012). It has been suggested that control of excitatory and inhibitory brain neurons by type-1 cannabinoid receptors is what effects fear coping in mice (Metna-Laurent, Sorio-Gomez, Verrier, Conforzi, Jego & Lafenetre, 2012). This type-1 cannabinoid receptor has been a contributing factor to whether mice used active or passive coping strategies. Mice lacking the type-1 cannabinoid receptor showed active coping strategies, but when regulated back to the normal level of type-1 cannabinoid receptors the mice showed equal signs of active (fight or flight) and passive (immobility and decreased response) (Metna-Laurent, Sorio-Gomez, Verrier, Conforzi, Jego & Lafenetre, 2012). These results suggest that type-1 cannabinoid receptors could be what determine what coping strategy an individual may use when facing a threatening situation (Metna-Laurent, Sorio-Gomez, Verrier, Conforzi, Jego & Lafenetre, 2012). The idea of type-1 cannabinoid receptors affecting fear coping strategies has been extensively researched with similar findings occurring multiple times. Mice have been used many times as both humans and animals respond in similar ways faced with different environmental cues (Cannich, Wotjak, Kamprath, Hermann, Lutz & Marsicano, 2004). Similar research methods were used once again, inducing mice to either more type-1 cannabinoid receptors or less. It was proposed by the researchers that cannabinoid system modulates the extinction of memories of fearful situations (Cannich, Wotjak, Kamprath, Hermann, Lutz & Marsicano, 2004). Thus indicating that cannabinoids can shape aspects of coping mechanisms[grammar?].

Mice have been used to see the effects of type-1 cannabinoid receptors and how these effect fear (Metna-Laurent, Sorio-Gomez, Verrier, Conforzi, Jego & Lafenetre, 2012).

Children[edit | edit source]

For a long time children and youths have been exposed to many of the same fears adults have, such as terrorism, war and natural disasters (Burnham, 2009). For this reason Burnham (2009) surveyed 1,033 children ranging from year 2 to year 12 students. This would hopefully indicate the most common fears that youths have and also lead to an understanding of the most effective coping strategies (Burnham, 2009). Ten years prior a similar survey was conducted in which 20 contemporary fears for youths were identified which ranged from racial tension and crime to contracting AIDS. The survey was conducted at 23 different schools and involved children from very diverse backgrounds (Burnham, 2009). Interestingly 8 out of the original 20 fears identified ten years prior were once again inside the top 20 fears. Many of the fears the youths showed were acts of extreme violence such as “being raped” coming in at the number one fear followed by answers such as “terrorist attacks” and “having to fight in a war” (Burnham, 2009). The aim of this survey after was to identify more effective coping strategies for children and how this effects positions such as school counsellors. The survey results showed that youths are sharing many real world fears that society faces and those involved in positions to devise coping strategies have to take this into account (Burnham, 2009). Burnham concluded that school counsellors needed further training and preparation strategies to deal with 21st century fears. They also required more extensive resources to relate to fears and stressors that youth are coping with. Lastly, he suggested that school counsellors and schools themselves must teach coping skills and strategies to youths to promote positive coping strategies so that youths can be proactive in being able to cope with fears (Burnham, 2009).

Fears and phobias may result in crying (American Psychiatric Association, 2013).

Many researchers have dedicated time to identify how children cope with fear, as many children have to deal with aspects of life such as death and violence at a young age (Nicholson & Pearson, 2003). Nicholson and Pearson proposed that children can learn to cope with these fears at school and at home by using story books to address such topics (2003). Bibliotherapy is the process of using the patient to express their feelings and their relationship to the characters and concepts in the book. Children’s fears can range from real world troubles to imaginary monsters. Nicholson and Pearson therefore suggest that using books to encourage the participants to imagine and process their fears using a nonthreatening medium. This can introduce coping strategies through the story, characters and pleasing visuals (Nicholson & Pearson, 2003). After the book is presented to the children a series of questions follow such as “If you were that character what would you do?” or “Do you ever wish or feel you were like that?” (Nicholson & Pearson, 2003). This process allows the participants to then hypothetically put themselves in the situation without ever being directly exposed to the perceived threat.

Children have also being involved in other types of research, but not as the ones experiencing the fear, but the ones being the source of the fear to parents and families. Fivush and McDermott looked to elaborate on this using attachment theory, and hypothesised that mothers who are more securely attached and cope more effectively would be more engaged and emotionally expansive as a parent (2006). They also suggested that for events which have already occurred how this is remembered will affect future ability to cope with stressful events such as fear. The study involved 27 mothers recalling a medical event involving their asthma and both psychological and social factors were recorded (Fivush & McDermott, 2006). After recalling the severe asthma attack both mother and child were given a questionnaire in separate rooms, asking specific questions about what emotions they were experiencing and how stressed they were throughout the process. The results showed that what Fivush and McDermott hypothesised was not entirely correct as mothers who were more anxiously attached and engaged talked more about the event opposed to mothers who were less anxiously attached (2006). It also showed that mothers who were more anxiously attached had children who had higher levels of internalizing and externalizing behavioural problems (Fivush & McDermott, 2006).

Fear of Death[edit | edit source]

Many researchers have dedicated there time to the terminally ill patients and how to devise coping strategies when there is a very high chance of death. A study examined why chronically sick adults make certain choices about medicine when there is a feeling of fear or hopelessness about the outcome (Elliot, Ross-Degnan, Adams, Safran & Soumerai, 2007). Twenty chronically ill seniors aged from 67 – 90 years old were interviewed about their current medications and their medicine taking behaviour. The results showed patterns in medicine taking behaviour as 18 out of the 20 patients knew why they were taking the medication outcome (Elliot, Ross-Degnan, Adams, Safran & Soumerai, 2007). When asked what influenced their medicine taking behaviour fear was a very prominent emotion as “fear of future risk of disease” (affective forecasting) and “acceptability” were very common answers outcome (Elliot, Ross-Degnan, Adams, Safran & Soumerai, 2007). Although there was no specific coping strategy recommendation it did show that the fear or inevitability of death was a factor in how people chose to cope.

Quiz 3[edit | edit source]

1 What effect did the lack of type-1 cannabinoid receptors have on mice?

They showed increased signs of passive coping strategies
They showed increased signs of active coping strategies
They had no effect
Both A and B

2 According to the previous research what was the most common fear of adolescents?

Being raped
The dark
Having to go to war
Parental violence

Conclusion[edit | edit source]

Fear is a common emotion which many people face in their day to day lives when faced with a situation or environment deemed to be dangerous which could potentially harm (Izard, 2007). But when faced with this situation people begin coping which is the psychological process of consciously tolerating or solving potential stress (Lazaurus, 1966). Many theorists have theorised as to how people consciously cope with this stress and this has also resulted in extensive research into how different people cope with fear in certain situations. Ultimately this results in a combination of coping strategies, theories and individual differences which determines how people cope with fear.

See also[edit | edit source]

References[edit | edit source]

American Psychiatric Association. (2013). Diagnostic and statistical manual of mental disorders (5th ed.). Washington, DC: Author.

Burnham, J. J. (2009). Contemporary Fears of Children and Adolescents: Coping and Resiliency in the 21st Century. Journal of Counseling & Development. 87(1), 28 – 35. doi: 10.1002/j.1556-6678.2009.tb00546.x

Cannich, A., Wotjak, C. T., Kamprath, K., Hermann, H., Lutz, B. & Mariscano, G. (2004). CB1 Cannabinoid Receptors Modulate Kinase and Phosphatase Activity During Extinction of Conditioned Fear in Mice. Learning and Memory. 11(5), 625 – 632. doi:10.1101/lm.77904

Carver, C. S., Scheier, M. F. & Weintraub, J. K. (1989). Assessing coping strategies: A theoretically based approach. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology. 56 (2), 267 – 283. doi: 10.1037/0022-3514.56.2.267

Elliot, R.A., Ross-Degnan, D., Adam, S.A., Safran, D. G. & Soumerai, S. B. (2007). Strategies for coping in a complex world: adherence behavior among older adults with chronic illness. J Gen Intern Med. 22(6), 805 - 810. doi: 10.1007/s11606-007-0193-5

Fivush, R. & McDermott, J. (2006) Coping, Attachment, and Mother-Child Narratives of Stressful Events. Wayne State University Press. 52(1), 125 – 150. Retrieved from

Izard, C.( 2007). Basic Emotions, Natural Kinds, Emotion Schemas, and a New Paradigm. Perspective of Psychological Science. 2(3), 260 – 280. doi: 10.1111/j.1745-6916.2007.00044.xh

Kernberg, O. (1984). Object Relations Theory and Clinical Psychoanalysis. Retrieved from

Knoll, N. & Schwarzer, R. (2003). Positive Coping: Mastering Demands and Searching for Meaning. Handbook of Positive Psychological Assessment. 49(1), 393 – 409. doi: 10.1037/10612-025

Krohne, H. W. (2002). Stress and Coping Theories. In The international encyclopaedia of the social and behavioral sciences. Retrieved from

Metna-Laurent, M., Soria-Gomez, E., Verrier, D., Confrozzi, M., Jego, P., Lafenetre, P. & Mariscano, G. (2012). Bimodal Control of Fear-Coping Strategies by CB1 Cannabinoid Receptors. The Journal of Neuroscience. 32(21), 7109 – 7118. doi: 10.1523/JNEUROSCI.1054-12.2012

Nicholson, J. I. & Pearson, Q. A. (2003). Helping children cope with fears: using children's literature in classroom guidance. American School Counselor Association. 7(1), 15. Ebscohost Accession Number: 11360367

Russell, J. (1980) A Circumplex Model of Affect. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology. 39(6), 1161 – 1178. Retrieved from

Schwartz, R. M. (1986) The Internal Dialogue: On the Asymmetry Between Positive and Negative Coping Thoughts. Cognitive Therapy and Research. 10(6), 591 – 605. doi: 10.1007/BF01173748

Staingier, U., Von Consbruch, K., Schramm, E. & Heidenreich, T. (2010). Common factors of cognitive therapy and interpersonal psychotherapy in the treatment of social phobia. Anxiety, Stress & Coping: An International Journal. 23(3). 289 – 301. doi: 10.1080/10615800903180239