Key Takeaways

  • Irrational fears don’t have logical causes or origins. A person experiencing an irrational fear will have a fear response that is disproportionate to the actual danger at hand.
  • While irrational fears can seem unfounded, they cause real distress for people affected by them. Left untreated, they may escalate into a clinical anxiety disorder called a phobia.
  • You don’t have to have a mental health condition to experience an irrational fear. But if irrational fears are negatively impacting your life, speaking with a mental health professional can help.

Fear is a natural human emotion. And in many cases, fear is a logical response to a situation or event that could be unsafe.

But sometimes, people experience intense fear without a rational explanation or cause. Their minds and bodies react as if they are in danger when they are not and they have difficulty regulating their emotions. When this happens, it’s called an irrational fear. 

While these fears may seem unfounded to an outsider, this distressing experience is very real to the affected person. If you or someone you care about is experiencing irrational fears, know that you aren’t alone and that help is available. With some self-reflection, patience, and at times, support from a mental health professional, you can learn to regulate your emotions, conquer your worries, and live a life with less fear.

 

Irrational fear definition

Irrational fear is an intense fear without a rational explanation or cause. When this happens to a person, their minds and bodies react as if they are in danger when they are not and they have difficulty regulating their emotions.

To better understand the concept of irrational fear, let’s look at an example. If you are at home at night, not expecting visitors, and hear someone tinkering with the lock on your front door, your fear would be considered rational because it’s tied to a clear safety concern — someone may be trying to break into your home. If you weren’t afraid in that moment, you may not have taken the necessary steps to keep yourself safe, like calling 911 or locking the deadbolt. 

Humans have evolved to rely on the stress response from fear to keep us out of harm’s way. In other words, fear can be a good thing in certain situations. However, irrational fears do not serve the same positive, protective purpose as rational fears. Instead, they prompt us to respond as if we’re in danger when we are not.

Some common examples of fears include flying in an airplane, public speaking, and spiders. 

Having some fleeting discomfort during a turbulent flight, when getting on stage to speak, or when a spider crawls across your foot isn’t necessarily cause for concern. But when these fears are severe and they persist, they can become irrational and evolve into a mental health concern called a phobia that can negatively affect your life in a variety of ways. 

Why are irrational fears a problem?

Having irrational fears can take a toll on your well-being in a variety of ways. Often, people who live with irrational fears will do whatever they can to avoid their triggers. So you may begin avoiding places or activities you used to enjoy, isolating yourself from people you love, or having problems at work or school. This might leave you feeling lonely and disconnected, which can impact your mental health and decrease your overall quality of life.

Irrational fear can also compromise your physical health. Left unaddressed, irrational fears can escalate into an anxiety disorder called a phobia that may require professional help to overcome. People who have a phobia typically experience an increase in heart rate, sweating, shaking, panic attacks, or even more severe physical responses when faced with their triggers. 

Recognizing your own irrational fears

One of the first and most important steps in overcoming irrational fears is to learn to spot them in yourself. If you find yourself having frequent, severe fear that is negatively impacting your day-to-day life, the following steps can help you increase your self-awareness and regulate your emotions:

  • Ask yourself if the response you’re having is reasonable given the situation at hand. Does your level of fear mirror the actual threat?
  • Pay attention to your physical symptoms. Noticing when your heart starts to race or your voice begins to shake. can give you a heads-up that you may be experiencing an irrational fear.
  • Make note of any strong aversions you have to people, places, or things. If you’re afraid to be around something or someone, ask yourself if that fear is founded.

What causes irrational fears?

Just because a fear is considered irrational doesn’t mean that it doesn’t have an origin. Oftentimes, seemingly unfounded fears have their roots in negative childhood experiences or past traumatic events. So if you’re facing an irrational fear, see if you can think back to when it first began. Sometimes identifying the underlying cause can help make the fear feel smaller. 

In addition to negative past experiences, certain genetic factors might make you more susceptible to phobias and irrational fears. For example, if you have a close relative (like a parent or sibling) who lives with a phobia, you might be more likely to develop one, too. Some research suggests that the way our brains develop can also play a role in the development of irrational fears and phobias. Specifically, abnormalities in the brain’s neurotransmitters may have a causal effect. 

How can I overcome irrational fears?

If irrational fears are negatively affecting your life, know that you don’t have to live with them. There are ways to manage and conquer your fears, including:

Exposure therapy

This intervention is conducted by a mental health professional and involves a slow and gradual exposure to whatever you fear. You’ll start with something less anxiety-provoking and increase the challenge over time so that you become desensitized to your triggers.

Cognitive-behavioral therapy (CBT)

Cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) is designed to help you identify and challenge unhelpful thoughts and behaviors. This approach can help you dismantle the negative thought patterns that fuel your irrational fears.

Relaxation techniques

From breathing exercises to mindfulness meditations, there are many relaxation practices you can use to calm your fears. These helpful practices don’t require any special equipment and you can use them just about anywhere. 

Seeking support from friends and professionals

Living with a phobia or irrational fear can sometimes leave you feeling embarrassed or isolated. But talking about your experience with someone you trust can help you feel less alone. 

Talk to a professional

If you feel like your fears are out of control, consider speaking with a therapist who specializes in treating phobias and anxiety disorders. They can help you identify the root of your fears and learn coping strategies to navigate them. 

Find support for overcoming irrational fears with Rula 

Fear is a normal part of life that we all experience from time to time to time. But if irrational fears are keeping you from living your life to the fullest, know that help is available. 

In just a few seconds, Rula can help you find a therapist who takes your insurance and specializes in treating fears and phobias. And if you have questions along the way, our team is here to help. When you’re ready, you can book a session and meet with a therapist from the comfort of home in as little as two days. I

More From Rula

April 18, 2024
What causes low self-esteem? Six ways to feel better about yourself

If you have low self-esteem, there are things you can do to boost your confidence.

April 17, 2024
Understanding existential anxiety and how to cope

For people with existential anxiety, life’s big questions can cause extreme distress.