Fear-based motivation

How many of our choices and decisions are driven by fear? And is fear a motivator or do we eventually burnout and suffer from chronic illness from too much fear?


These questions are on my mind today. Like anything, I believe that there can be a middle ground and balance when talking about fear as a motivator.

Firstly, let’s think about what fear is. Fear is an emotion. On the extreme end, it can motivate our sympathetic nervous system into fight, flight or freeze. We release adrenaline and cortisol when we feel fear and these hormones activate us to move, get out of the situation, stand and fight or freeze.  All of these actions will serve as a survival response.

Many of us have similar fears. When I speak to my clients about their fears I often dig deep and ask them, “What is it that you are fearing?” or “What is the very worst that can happen?” I then go onto the “and then what might happen?” line of questioning.

For example, a client might say that they wake up in the night worrying about their job. What is it that they fear the most? They might say that they fear that they aren’t doing a good enough job and that their colleagues think that they are slackers. What is interesting is when we dig deep and ask what the worst thing that could happen people will often say that they fear losing their job.

When we follow the line of questioning down the “and then what might happen?” path it often ends in them imagining that they have become homeless and hungry. Obviously, we are talking extremes here but when we then go on to question the likelihood of that the clients tell me that it is highly unlikely.

The important factor in this is that we are driven by fear to survive, thrive and succeed. 

Here is a list of things that we fear the most:

  • Fear of failure
  • Fear of being rejected
  • Fear of abandonment
  • Fear of poverty

Some of my clients are driven by these fears. They work long hours doing more, more, more for fear of failing and fear of poverty. In this respect, a small amount of fear can be useful, after all, if we weren’t afraid of anything we wouldn’t survive for very long since it is what keeps us alive. But when does that tip over into becoming an unhealthy obsession? How many of us ask ourselves the question of why we are doing what we are doing and actually know the answer?

Let’s think about fear as a motivator for a moment and how fear actually helps us.

Fear of loss might mean that we make more effort not to lose our job, relationship, career, or money. We might put slightly more effort into our relationships with our loved ones if there is a slight fear of loss.

Fear as a threat can serve us if we have a possible diagnosis (pre-diabetic) whereby if we don’t change our behaviour (diet, exercise) then the result will not be in our favour.

Fear as risk aversion. Parents oftentimes can predict an unfavourable outcome quicker than younger children therefore we let them know of the negative consequences should they either partake in a behaviour or continue with a behaviour.

On the other hand, fear-based motivation can increase anxiety and depression if taken to an extreme. If the fear as a motivator turns into chronic stress for instance we might experience burnout or begin to experience physical health issues.  

If the nervous system is constantly in a state of fear-based threat we can begin to develop inflammation in the body which eventually leads to ill health.

The key word here is balance. If you begin to recognise chronic stress and realise that underlying the stress is fear then it’s a good idea to speak with someone to figure out what your worst fears are and how you might put things back into perspective.

Putting things into perspective might mean that you don't need to work such long hours in your job for instance. Or it might mean that exploring your view on your relationship might need some boundary setting or time for you.  Think about how many decisions that you make are fear-based and ask whether this is helping or hindering.  It might lead to some breakthroughs and new awareness.

The views expressed in this article are those of the author. All articles published on Counselling Directory are reviewed by our editorial team.

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High Peak, Derbyshire, SK23
Written by Samantha Flanagan, Anxiety Therapist (PGDIP, Registered member of BACP)
High Peak, Derbyshire, SK23

I am a member of BACP with a level 7, PGdip in Integrative Counselling and Psychotherapy. I am qualified to work with many issues which include but are not limited to: emotional abuse, relationships, trauma, anxiety, substance mis-use, developmental trauma, and attachment issues.

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