Without fear we would be worse off

Henning Köhler

The difficulty in describing the “human face of fear” (Alois Hicklin) is because it is hidden in large parts. Behavioural research is inadequate. The explanatory power of interviews is also limited. Anyone who themselves has suffered great fear knows that others who speak about it are actually just beating about the bush of the inexpressible.

Psychoanalytical hypotheses about causal biographical connections are unreliable. Here the post hoc, ergo propter hoc fallacy lies in wait (not everything that precedes a phenomenon is also its cause). Anyone who really wants to, can always find a biographical causality.

A feeling difficult to grasp

There are certain reaction patterns which occur in situations of acute danger in animals and humans. They are referred to as protective and survival mechanisms. They might trigger the flight reflex for example. We do not know, however, whether a fleeing animal feels the same thing as a fleeing human who will later say: “I was frightened” (and knew it when they turned to flee).

Furthermore, humans experience many things as threatening, frightening or disconcerting of which animals in all probability have no idea (the reverse is probably also true). After all, the individual differences are enormous. Some things seem unfathomable. For example Josua, two years old, who for wholly incomprehensible reasons is filled with panic and fear by the wind.

Humans can, as a rule, identify their fears and anxieties as such, even if they might not understand the causes. Children at a very early age and with great certainty express that they are frightened. To what extent everything that happens to us changes as soon as we identify and name it is a fascinating philosophical question.

In any event, it is likely that identifiable fear and anxiety are fundamentally different from unconscious fear and anxiety through the fact alone that they are identifiable. Or are unconscious fear and anxiety a square circle? This was the opinion of Søren Kierkegaard. He wrote: “There is no fear in unconsciousness.” This of course directly raises the question what consciousness means. Rudolf Steiner, for example, differentiated between waking consciousness, dream consciousness and sleeping consciousness. Georg Kühlewind saw the human soul life spread between subconsciousness and superconsciousness. All clear?

Kierkegaard referred to the self-referential or witnessing consciousness which can lead us to question our own existence. A thought: what people designate by the terms fear and anxiety may possibly owe its existence to the fact that they have raised it up into consciousness. But let us not haggle over words. It may well be right to describe the instinctive behaviour of animals in situations of danger as fear. Anthropomorphising them should nevertheless be done with some caution.

We all know about the olfactory system and can chemically identify scents; but how (and why) smells affect us emotionally has to be investigated by different means. It is equally impossible to determine from the outer signs of fear and anxiety what drama lies hidden underneath. The people affected can only describe it subjectively and, as everyone knows, it is difficult to find the right words. Mostly they seem inadequate, much too banal. There is a great divergence between accounts.

Similarities nevertheless do appear, the outlines of basic patterns become apparent. It is, however, a wide field. Simple classification schemes always fall short. We should bear in mind Erich Segeberg’s  remarkable words: “The greatest subjectivity is the means by which to grasp the truly objective in a creative way.” Some clients appreciate the suggestion that they should draw their fears or represent them in a fairy tale.

Kierkegaard threw a light on the confused links between freedom, responsibility, guilt and fear. The concept of “fear of letting ourselves down” can be found in him. He makes clear that every ascending spiritual development will inevitably lead through crises of fear. Indeed, in some respects we only have a choice between remaining dulled or facing up to our fears.

Fear and anxiety fundamentally indicate that we are overburdened. Every step into the open, the unknown represents such an excessive burden. If we try to avoid fear and anxiety at any cost, development grinds to a halt. Avoidance strategies often come to expression in obsessive compulsive behaviour or addiction. Paradoxically, the fear of letting ourselves down grows the more our defensive behaviour against any other fear or anxiety determines our life.

Fear does not have to be egoistical. It can also result from empathy or a deeply felt responsibility. It is, of course, true that when I feel anxiety about my children or a friend at risk of committing suicide there may be more than pure altruism at play – after all, we also always fear the pain we anticipate – but self-interested motives recede far into the background here. What would human beings be without this wonderful characteristic?

Not the opposite of courage

The widespread view that fear and anxiety are enemies which must the fought, overcome and removed cannot bear differentiated scrutiny. There is a great tendency today to devalue fear and sorrow across the board. This is connected with the whole wellness and happiness cult. It is a great earner for the pharmaceutical industry. Just to remind ourselves: every creative process goes through phases of despondency and dejectedness. Such bottlenecks are simply part of it. Otherwise everything stays … frothy. The following thought might also contribute to salvaging the honour of fear and sadness: tamed, discrete fear comes to expression as reserve and watchfulness.

Courage is not the opposite of fear but means raising ourselves up when we are fearful. Deep, sustained sadness is a long way from being depression. Anyone who cannot permit sadness deprives themselves of the encounter with the genius of melancholy. That is a great loss.

So let us remember: a person who could feel neither fear nor sadness would be all the poorer for it.

Psychotropic drugs are no long-term solution

From a certain level onwards, however, fear and anxiety become nothing but agonising. Sometimes there are clearly evident reasons, at other times not. The people affected need therapeutic help and a supportive social environment otherwise they fall into a bottomless pit.

Psychotropic drugs are not a solution but sometimes necessary to maintain at least a shadow of quality of life. In the long-term, however, there is no other solution than to lay bare the inner sources of strength with which to remove fear and anxiety. A person plagued by anxiety is not healed if they (apparently) successfully lock away or paralyse their fear but if they succeed in coming to terms with it.

In the last 30 years I have become acquainted with hundreds of children, young people and young adults who suffered from more or less severe anxieties. Incidentally, school phobia is spreading on an epidemic scale. The severity with which teachers, doctors, psychologists, the authorities and, secondarily, parents react to it often leaves us bewildered.

That not only comes close to emotional child abuse, it is emotional child abuse. Just a suggestion: perhaps pupils with school phobia have good reasons for their anxiety, reasons which lie in the school itself.

Four basic forms of fear and anxiety

States of fear and anxiety are not always the result of acute threats, circumstances in our life which burden us, or the effects of trauma. As I said, fear is one of the basic human conditions. That can be well illustrated using the example of the crisis of puberty. As the first great crisis about the meaning of life, it is extremely instructive. If only because it can keep catching up with us at a later stage.

The so-called identity conflict erupts in adolescence. Four questions force themselves into our consciousness. Sometimes they are clearly put, sometimes the ability of self-reflection is still absent:

  • Who am I?
  • How am I perceived?
  • What am I capable of?
  • What do I want to become?

But behind each of these questions there is a deeper, more fundamental one:

  • Do I exist at all?
  • Am I perceived at all?
  • Am I capable of anything worth mentioning at all?
  • Are there worthwhile developmental goals at all?

Each of these questions shimmers between fear and hope. Thus we encounter what I would call four  fears which are necessary for development and with which each person has to learn to cope in order to look towards the future with hope.

  • Existential fear: “Sometimes it seems to me as if I don’t really exist at all. What does ‘I’ mean in the first place? Is it ultimately just an illusion? Why do I sometimes have no real sense of myself?”
  • Social fear: “Can I prevail in the face of the judgement of my fellow human beings? Am I likeable in any way? Does anyone see ME at all? Does love exist? Is it possible to have trust?”
  • Fear of failure or powerlessness: “Do I have particular abilities? Can I succeed in doing anything worth mentioning? Is it worth starting anything? Or am I born to be a loser? Is it possible to act OURSELVES at all or are we just driven like leaves in the wind or cogs in the machine, depending on how you look at it?”
  • Fear of the future: “The world is full of dangers, you never know what will happen next. What if it were totally pointless to be guided by ideals or even strive for utopias? Is what is called self-realisation ultimately just an empty word? Where is the world drifting? Towards the abyss? And I with it?”

Four forms of fear, four anxious questions. It is clear that they are closely related. One person might agonise more about one, another more about the other. In a profound crisis of meaning they all occur at once with various priorities and different symbolic representations. To this extent, when we are brought low by existential fear, social anxieties, feelings of failure and hopelessness we are no different to the adolescent in puberty in whom puberty has pathologically escalated.

I am aware that I warned of classification schemes at the beginning and am now offering one myself. But no claim of completeness is associated with it, it merely represents aspects. To speak about relationships between these four forms of fear and anxiety and earlier phases of childhood would go beyond the scope of this article.

But there are two things I must at least still mention briefly: first, the social dimension of fear and anxiety. Hardly anyone has written as well about this as Horst-Eberhard Richter in his radical book Umgang mit Angst (Dealing with Fear). Second, pointers can be distilled from my reflections with regard to therapy. Physical therapies are primarily indicated to alleviate existential fear. To alleviate social anxiety, those affected need a real supportive relationship from the therapist and are dependent on the latter to help them gradually re-establish social contacts. With regard to the fear of failure, the golden rule applies: art heals. And in order to take the sting out of the fear of the future, the visionary spirit must be re-awoken. Here there are impressive concepts (keyword: vision search). In serious crises of meaning, anxiety and self-worth, every therapy should contain these elements.

About the author: Henning Köhler is a special-needs teacher, child and adolescent therapist at the Janusz Korczak Institute and founder of the Special Needs Therapy Outpatient Clinic; extensive teaching and lecturing activity in Germany and abroad; he has published numerous books.