What are we scared of?

Scare-devil figure to ward off evil spirits, India

Scare-devil figure to ward off evil spirits, India

By and large, those of us in the west live in the least dangerous conditions in human history. Most of us have the basics: food, shelter, safety. We’re unlikely to be killed by wild animals (even other humans) and fatal infectious disease is rare. Life expectancy is long and few of us die in childbirth.

So why are rates of anxiety disorder high and rising? There’s probably a whole book to be written in answer to that question. But having less to fear doesn’t seem to have made us less fearful. Perhaps our evolutionary responses haven’t caught up with our changing circumstances. Perhaps we don’t quite believe our luck. Perhaps the rate of change itself makes us fearful.

I’m not seeking to make light of anxiety disorder. I know from experience how crippling and exhausting it is. But I am interested in what lies beneath these fears. What is it we’re all so frightened of?

The Wellcome Collection had a go at finding out in a recent interactive exhibition. People were asked to write down their greatest fears on a piece of paper, which they then crumpled and put in a bin, in a symbolic act of letting go. The curators then rooted around among the hundreds of responses to find out the most commonly-cited fears.

I don’t think the top five will surprise anyone. People fear death, being alone, losing someone, failure. And spiders, the only fear I don’t share. What strikes me is that they’re not irrational fears (except maybe the spiders). All of these experiences are inevitable. No-one can avoid confronting them at some point in their lives, or at the end of them. Perhaps our longer, safer lives even make some of these things seem more frightening, because we have less experience of them.

The Wellcome team did find some surprising fears. Vaginas, for example, and automatic doors (not together). Writing in public, which I think I can cope with. A sudden wine shortage, though. That’s a new fear to keep me await in the early hours.

Image: Wellcome Images, with CCL.



  1. Fortuitous to read this just as I start writing about the study below. We have more time to ponder our fears, and they start to threaten us long before we once would have had any whiff of them.

    Cancer Fear: Facilitator and Deterrent to Participation in Colorectal Cancer Screeninghttp://cebp.aacrjournals.org/content/early/2015/01/23/1055-9965.EPI-14-0967.full.pdf+html

  2. Elizabeth (Aust) · ·

    Certainly many women greatly fear cervical cancer, a bit surprising when the lifetime risk is less than 1%, but we hear a LOT about cervical cancer and pap testing, and huge numbers of women end up with a “scare”…many believe they were saved by a pap test, when in almost every case they were simply over-treated.
    Rare is rare, you can’t save 77% of women who screen when the cancer itself affects fewer than 1% of women. (77% is the lifetime risk of referral for colposcopy and usually at least a biopsy under the Australian (over-)screening program) It means far greater risks to our health and lives are overlooked or underfunded.

    I know my female ancestors did not give cervical cancer a second thought, along with other fairly rare diseases, but I think women have been groomed to fear their own bodies. We’re expected to screen, scolded if we don’t, get a one-sided presentation of the evidence…so much for informed consent! Often there is no consent at all, two male spokesmen for the AMA here recently made public statements linking the Pill to pap testing, no one challenged them. The two are, of course, completely unrelated. We don’t hear them linking a prescription for Viagra with a recent colonoscopy though, do we? The old double standard is alive and well.

    Breast cancer is a serious problem, but the pink juggernaut makes me uncomfortable…it seems big business and commercialization is never far away from women’s cancer screening. I want the evidence for and against screening, not a slogan, celebrity endorsement or a pink ribbon.
    Needless to say I got to the evidence early and made informed decisions not to take part in women’s cancer screening. It concerns me to see the anxiety and harm being caused to so many women by these programs and the reduced quality of life for many women who find pap testing painful, violating, upsetting etc. Not to mention all of the excess colposcopies, biopsies and treatments.
    Many older women find pap tests intolerable, very painful, but they are never offered HPV self-testing which would show almost all are HPV- and cannot benefit from pap testing.
    I think we’d be better of respecting and protecting our asymptomatic bodies and concentrating on the basics again, exercise, diet, sleep, stress levels, don’t smoke, watch your weight, limit alcohol etc.

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