What is Dysfunctional Fear and How Can You Overcome It?

Dysfunctional fear prevents us from carrying out activities that interest us based on a supposed threat. Can it be controlled? Learn the answer here.
What is Dysfunctional Fear and How Can You Overcome It?
Maria Fatima Seppi Vinuales

Written and verified by the psychologist Maria Fatima Seppi Vinuales.

Last update: 23 August, 2022

No emotion is by itself good or bad. It’s true that we feel better when we experience joy compared to when we’re angry or afraid. However, anger can alert us to a situation of injustice and fear can keep us awake so that we’re not surprised. So, when does fear become dysfunctional?

In the above cases, emotions play in our favor if we know how to interpret them and understand that they’re tools. However, there are times when an emotion completely invades us, dominates us, and tinges a situation with its own tone. This is what happens when we experience dysfunctional fear.

What is dysfunctional fear?

Fear is a basic, primary and universal emotion. However, its experience is singular. Not all of us feel it or express it in the same way.

The best way to understand fear is to focus on how it helps us to manage our daily lives. This means that it can be both functional and dysfunctional, and it is so according to the circumstances.

For example, fear can be good because it allows us to be attentive so that a child doesn’t burn him or herself if he or she is helping us to cook. However, it’s bad if it paralyzes us and prevents us from enjoying preparing recipes with the child out of fear of anything happening to them.

Now, dysfunctional fear is that which confines us, stops us, paralyzes us, and causes suffering, discomfort, and anguish. When this fear is experienced permanently, it places us in anticipatory anxiety -, that is, it alerts us to threats or situations that have not happened with a disproportionate reaction.

Fear while driving
Any fear that doesn’t let us do daily activities or enjoy is dysfunctional.

How to overcome dysfunctional fear?

Some of the keys that can help you overcome fear are the following:

  • Recognize that it’s a natural emotion and don’t try to hide it. Accept that fear lives in us to signal something to us, to fulfill its function. So, before trying to suppress it, it’s best to learn to read it. To do this, you can ask yourself, “Why am I feeling fear now? What aspects should I pay attention to?” This way, you’ll put fear to play in your favor; it will become functional instead of dysfunctional.
  • Identify the nature of the threat. Think about whether it’s real, probable, or improbable. It often happens that fear is triggered indiscriminately by multiple stimuli. This is what makes us live enveloped in it. However, not all threats are equally probable or important. We need to learn how to deal with cognitive biases that, if we learn them, will help us to classify the seriousness of threats.
  • What could you do about it? From the previous point, it’s useful to think about how we could prepare ourselves and what to do in such a situation. In this way, we’ll be able to see that there are different solutions and different measures we can take.
  • Make your plan for dealing with your fears. Now that you know what you’re afraid of and what you can do, it’s important to think of a gradual plan to face the feared situation. This means that, little by little, you should familiarize yourself with that phantom threat until you’re able to come face to face with it. If you’re paralyzed by public speaking, for example, you can start by rehearsing and recording yourself, then practice with friends, and finally expose yourself.
  • Use relaxation techniques. One of the best alternatives is to try to contain dysfunctional fear. To do this, you can start with relaxation and breathing exercises that help make the fear functional.
  • Ask for help. If you feel that fear prevents you from making decisions, being more spontaneous, and living according to your desires, then don’t hesitate to consult a professional.
Therapy for dysfunctional fear
In therapy, you can address your fears with some techniques provided by a professional.

We think you may also enjoy reading this article: 10 Negative Effects of Stress on Your Health To Keep in Mind

Fear can be an ally

Fear is not always dangerous, and this is the first step to recognizing dysfunctional fear. We must put on other lenses when reading situations. Otherwise, fear will corner us and prevent us from enjoying life. However, when well managed, fear allows us to survive.

Accepting that fear will always be there and that we’re not going to make it disappear from our spectrum of emotions is to embrace it. We can learn to manage it and be masters of ourselves.

All cited sources were thoroughly reviewed by our team to ensure their quality, reliability, currency, and validity. The bibliography of this article was considered reliable and of academic or scientific accuracy.

  • Moscone, R. O. (2012). El miedo y su metamorfosis. Psicoanálisis: Revista de la Asociación Psicoanalítica Colombiana24(1), 53-80.
  • Reyes Pérez, V., Rodríguez, A. R., Alcázar Olán, R. J., & Reidl Martínez, L. M. (2017). Las estrategias de afrontamiento que utilizan los adolescentes ante situaciones que provocan miedo. Psicogente20(38), 240-255.

This text is provided for informational purposes only and does not replace consultation with a professional. If in doubt, consult your specialist.