1917 | Vienna

Fears Founded and Unfounded

Sigmund Freud on real fear versus neurotic fear.

One can talk about fear for a long time without even touching on nervousness.

You will understand me without more ado when I term this fear real fear in contrast to neurotic fear. Real fear seems quite rational and comprehensible to us. We may testify that it is a reaction to the perception of external danger, viz., harm that is expected and foreseen. It is related to the flight reflex and may be regarded as an expression of the instinct of self-preservation. And so the occasions, that is to say, the objects and situations that arouse fear, will depend largely on our knowledge of and our feeling of power over the outer world. We deem it quite a matter of course that the savage fears a cannon or an eclipse of the sun, while the white man, who can handle the instrument and prophesy the phenomenon, does not fear these things. At other times, superior knowledge promulgates fear because it recognizes the danger earlier. The savage, for instance, will recoil before a footprint in the woods, meaningless to the uninstructed, which reveals to him the proximity of an animal of prey; the experienced sailor will notice a little cloud, which tells him of a coming hurricane, with terror, while to the passenger it seems insignificant.

War is fear cloaked in courage. 

—William Westmoreland, 1966

After further consideration, we must say to ourselves that the verdict on real fear, whether it be rational or purposeful, must be thoroughly revised. For the only purposeful behavior in the face of imminent danger would be the cool appraisal of one’s own strength in comparison with the extent of the threatening danger, and then decide which would presage a happier ending: flight, defense, or possibly even attack. Under such a proceeding, fear has absolutely no place; everything that happens would be consummated just as well and better without the development of fear. You know that if fear is too strong, it proves absolutely useless and paralyzes every action, even flight. Generally the reaction against danger consists in a mixture of fear and resistance. The frightened animal is afraid and flees. But the purposeful factor in such a case is not fear but flight.

We believe we know the early impression the emotion of fear repeats. We think it is birth itself which combines that complex of painful feelings, of a discharge of impulses, of physical sensations, which has become the prototype for the effect of danger to life, and is ever after repeated within us as a condition of fear. The tremendous heightening of irritability through the interruption of the circulation (internal respiration) was at the time the cause of the experience of fear; the first fear was therefore toxic. The name anxiety—angustial—narrowness, emphasizes the characteristic tightening of the breath, which was at the time a consequence of an actual situation and is henceforth repeated almost regularly in the emotion. We shall also recognize how significant it is that this first condition of fear appeared during the separation from the mother. Of course, we are convinced that the tendency to repetition of the first condition of fear has been so deeply ingrained in the organism through countless generations that not a single individual can escape the emotion of fear; not even the mythical Macduff, who was “cut out of his mother’s womb” and therefore did not experience birth itself. We do not know the prototype of the condition of fear in the case of other mammals, and so we do not know the complex of emotions that in them is the equivalent of our fear.

Prometheus Being Chained by Vulcan, by Dirck van Baburen, 1623. Rijksmuseum.

Prometheus Being Chained by Vulcan, by Dirck van Baburen, 1623. Rijksmuseum.

Proceeding now to neurotic fear, what are its manifestations and conditions? There is much to be described. In the first place, we find a general condition of anxiety, a condition of free-floating fear, as it were, which is ready to attach itself to any appropriate idea, to influence judgment, to give rise to expectations, in fact, to seize any opportunity to make itself felt. We call this condition “expectant fear” or “anxious expectation.” Persons who suffer from this sort of fear always prophesy the most terrible of all possibilities, interpret every coincidence as an evil omen, and ascribe a dreadful meaning to all uncertainty. Many persons who cannot be termed ill show this tendency to anticipate disaster. We blame them for being overanxious or pessimistic. A striking amount of expectant fear is characteristic of a nervous condition that I have named “anxiety neurosis,” and which I group with the true neuroses.

A second form of fear in contrast to the one we have just described is psychologically more circumscribed and bound up with certain objects or situations. It is the fear of the manifold and frequently very peculiar phobias: darkness, open air, open squares, cats, spiders, caterpillars, snakes, mice, thunderstorms, sharp points, blood, enclosed spaces, crowds, solitude, passing over a bridge, travel on land and sea, etc. Most of us, for instance, experience a feeling of repulsion in the presence of a snake. One may say that snakephobia is common to all human beings, and Charles Darwin has described most impressively how he was unable to control his fear of a snake pointing for him, though he knew he was separated from it by a thick pane of glass.

There remains a third group of phobias that is entirely unintelligible to us. When a strong adult man is afraid to cross a street or a square of his own hometown, when a healthy, well-developed woman becomes almost senseless with fear because a cat has brushed the hem of her dress or a mouse has scurried through the room—how are we to establish the relation to danger that obviously exists under the phobia? In these animal phobias, it cannot possibly be a question of the heightening of common human antipathies. For, as an illustration of the antithesis, there are numerous persons who cannot pass a cat without calling and petting it. The mouse of which women are so much afraid is at the same time a first-class pet name. Many a girl who has been gratified to have her lover call her so screams when she sees the cunning little creature itself. The behavior of the man who is afraid to cross the street or the square can only be explained by saying that he acts like a little child. A child is really taught to avoid a situation of this sort as dangerous, and our agoraphobist is actually relieved of his fear if someone goes with him across the square or street.

Dread attends the unknown.

—Nadine Gordimer, 1998

The two forms of fear that have been described, free-floating fear and the fear bound up with phobias, are independent of one another. The one is by no means a higher development of the other; only in exceptional cases, almost by accident, do they occur simultaneously. The strongest condition of general anxiety need not manifest itself in phobias; and persons whose entire life is hemmed in by agoraphobia can be entirely free of pessimistic, expectant fear.

The third form of neurotic fear confronts us with an enigma; we lose sight entirely of the connection between fear and threatening danger. This anxiety occurs in hysteria, for instance, as the accompaniment of hysteric symptoms, or under certain conditions of excitement, where we would expect an emotional manifestation, but least of all of fear, or without reference to any known circumstance, unintelligible to us and to the patient. Neither far nor near can we discover a danger or a cause that might have been exaggerated to such significance.

Two questions arise: Can we relate neurotic fear, in which danger plays so small a part or none at all, to real fear, which is always a reaction to danger? And what can we understand as the basis of neurotic fear? For the present, we want to hold to our expectations: wherever there is fear, there must be a cause for it.


Sigmund Freud

From Introductory Lectures on Psychoanalysis. “The ‘grande nation’ cannot face the idea that it can be defeated in war,” Freud wrote in 1895 about France after the 1870–71 Franco-Prussian War. “Ergo, it was not defeated; the victory does not count. It provides an example of mass paranoia and invents the delusion of betrayal.” Freud published his last major work, Moses and Monotheism, in 1938—the same year Germany annexed Austria. The following year, Freud died at the age of eighty-three in London.