Understanding our fears

Whatever we’re afraid of, we learn our fears from those around us — then teach them to others. But we can also learn confidence, says David Servan-Schreiber

Jacqui's sitting in a café, holding her two-year-old son on her lap. A beggar suddenly appears at their table, asking for money. The little boy is surprised, and turns to his mother. Jacqui anxiously pushes back her chair. The little boy starts crying.

At the zoo, Paula and her daughter are looking at the monkeys, their noses pressed against the cage. All of a sudden, one of them leaps from a branch and rattles the wire just above their heads. The little girl looks at her mother anxiously. Paula bursts out laughing, and so does her daughter.

We are full of fears. Fear of tunnels, flying, lifts, etc. Where do they come from? Are they merely a leftover from our genetic inheritance, which programmed us to avoid biting insects, enclosed spaces and dangerous heights?

Monkeys born in the wild are afraid of snakes — a useful asset for their survival. But monkeys raised in a laboratory don’t react when they see a snake, whether it’s poisonous or not. This shows that our fears can’t be genetic.

Michael Cook at the University of Wisconsin has done some remarkable research. He discovered that monkeys who have never been afraid of snakes quickly learn to be frightened of them: they only have to see that another monkey is scared. And it only has to happen once.

We all learn from our parents, siblings and friends what we should be afraid of, even if we’ve never experienced danger at first hand. We also learn confidence. Early in her first pregnancy, Sandra enrolled on an antenatal class. She was hoping to deal with anxieties about the birth, but she never imagined what strength she would discover within herself.

A woman who had given birth without pain relief came to talk to the group. Sandra was determined to try and have the same experience. She got in touch with women and, for the rest of her pregnancy, she worked out as if she were training for a marathon. When she went into labour, one of the women was with her. As she began to feel the contractions shooting through her body, her friend asked her to imagine the waves of pain like the sea bringing a little boat, with its precious passenger, to shore. Sandra hung on to these words, this sense of calm. They gave her the confidence she needed to get control of her fear. The birth went well, and Sandra learned that she had a strength she had never imagined. Self-confidence can come to us as a gift.

Our fears and our strengths define who we are. We’re not born with them, we learn them from other people and pass them on to our children, who look to us for guidance about the world around them. It’s up to each of us to pass on as little fear, and as much confidence, as we can.