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Fear: When Is It Rational, And When Is It Unhealthy?


Once a year, for 31 days, spooky becomes a societal norm. We willingly pay to enter haunted houses. We watch scary movies that we know will keep us up at night. Some of us even put 12-foot tall skeletons in our front yards.

We willingly seek out fear each Halloween. And it makes sense: Doctors have found a distinct rush of endorphins and camaraderie that come with our favorite Halloween traditions. It is, however, important to know the differences between a seasonal thrill and actual panic or long-lasting phobias.

When is fear rational?

Fear is a common emotion and, according to Kristen Francis, MD, a physician at Huntsman Mental Health Institute, fear can be healthy.

"Fear is natural," Francis says. "Fear is our brain telling us we need to protect ourselves or those we care about. It’s part of our basic human instinct to want to stay safe and survive."

Examples of rational fear can come in many forms, but they tend to share a common thread of imminent danger. Think of the feelings you get when you’re camping in the woods and hear a branch snap or when an elevator lurches a little too hard.

Fears like these point to situations in which you would likely face harm—but other fears can pop up that don’t necessarily make as much sense.

If your fears seem to be getting more intense, more frequent, and harder to shake, you might be experiencing a phobia, anxiety, or even paranoia.

When is fear unhealthy?

Disproportionate or persistent fears are based less on reality and can occur without any clear threat. These types of phobias can include fear of clowns, fear of the end of the world, or fear you have a rare disease.

Physical symptoms can be very similar to those you experience when you are in danger, like an increased heart rate and sweaty palms. But the mental impacts of disproportionate or persistent fear can lead to more serious psychological issues if left untreated.

"If you’re constantly feeling on the edge, or afraid without being in actual danger, you could be experiencing severe anxiety or panic disorder," Francis says. "It’s important that patients reach out for help before developing more severe mental health troubles."

How to help manage your fear.

It can, at times, be difficult to determine if your fears are rational or disproportionate. Sometimes they’re a mix of both. But if you are struggling with overwhelming fear, anxiety, phobias, or paranoia, it’s best to reach out to a medical professional.

"Disproportionate or long-standing fear is not something you need to grapple with alone," Francis says. "Therapists and psychiatrists can work with you to develop strategies to overcome those fears and get back to living your life."

Treatment options might include medication, talk therapy, lifestyle modifications, or a combination of all the above, depending on your situation. Reach out today if you or someone you know needs help.