The four horsemen of fear

Fear is a universal emotion. Fear of spiders, fear of crowds, fear of heights… There seems to be many types of fear, which makes it hard to know how to deal with them. Do you need a specific strategy for each unique fear you face?

Fortunately, all fears can be divided into four broad categories which psychologists refer to as the four horsemen of fear: bodily, interpersonal, cognitive and behavioral fears. And each of the four horsemen of fear can be addressed by applying simple strategies. 

Exploring the facets of fear

From an evolutionary perspective, fear forms part of our response to perceived threats, which is supposed to protect us from harm. However, fear can greatly impact our thoughts and actions.

The phrase “four horsemen” is rooted in Christian mythology, with each horseman representing part of a larger metaphor depicting the end of times. In 2020, researchers Adriano Schimmenti, Joël Billieux, and Vladan Starcevic used the metaphor of the four horsemen to explore the key domains of fear experienced during the pandemic.

The first horseman of fear is bodily fear, in which an individual fears the body, or fears for their body. This fear relates to our sense of physical wellbeing, vulnerability, and anxiety related to the signals our body sends us. Bodily fear can lead to hypervigilance to new symptoms, and significant fear of illness, injury or infection.

People who experience bodily fear tend to see their body as a valuable commodity which must be cared for to ensure a good quality of life. Thus, they may avoid taking risks such as going on a plane or visiting busy public places, despite this causing a potential reduction in overall life satisfaction.

The second horseman is interpersonal fear, relating to the important people in our lives. We may find ourselves experiencing substantial fear of significant others, or fear for significant others. Complex relationships can exist between children and their parents, as well as between partners and friends.

You may worry about the health of a loved one, or conversely have concerns that their behavior might cause you emotional, physical or financial harm. It is possible to concurrently experience both fear of, and fear for, someone else.

The third horseman is cognitive fear, the fear of not knowing, or the fear of knowing. With information available at our fingertips, many of us are caught in a vicious cycle of extensively reading about a topical issue, such as a war or an economic crisis.

Conversely, if we don’t educate ourselves, we may start to fear what we don’t know. A destructive intellectual cycle of needing to know followed by a fear of knowing can quickly ensue.

Finally, the fourth horseman is behavioral fear, which relates to the fear of taking action, or contrastingly, the fear of remaining inactive, as the team of researchers clarified in a further paper.

At work, you may be unsure how best to proceed with a project and worried that you may make a mistake, or you may feel stressed about not doing anything about a problem. By causing decision paralysis or stimulating hyperactivity, behavioral fear may drive you to make multiple poorly considered decisions, disrupting your progress as a result.

How to manage the four horsemen of fear

The four horsemen of fear can impact us in different ways. Each of these domains of fear lead to the biochemical fight or flight response that causes physical changes within the body such as increased heart rate.

That’s why, as Dr Ralph Adolphs explains, when we feel threatened, we try to either avoid the threat or cope with it. But these behaviors are not always productive, especially when we’re not aware of which domain of fear we are dealing with.

For example, bodily fears, which should be dealt with by appraising our physical sensations without judgment, can lead to panicked decisions when we confuse them with behavioral fears. Alternatively, we may not recognise our cognitive fears, which should be dealt with using metacognitive strategies, and erroneously approach them by focusing on our body.

Journaling is a great way to figure out the domain to which your fear belongs. Ask yourself: what is it exactly that is causing me worry, stress, and anxiety? Does my fear relate to the body, to people in my life, to the presence/absence of knowledge, or to (in)action? Describe your fear in as much detail as possible, trying to be as honest as possible with yourself.

Once you’ve identified the source of your fear, you can apply one of the following ways to deal with the four horsemen of fears:

  • Bodily fear: appraise your body. Reconnect with your body by understanding how you feel. For example, you can track your physical activity, set prompts to improve your posture, and practise mindfulness to become more familiar with how you feel.
  • Interpersonal fear: identify problematic relationships. Take an inventory of your interpersonal relationships to determine the connections that act as a source of growth and empowerment, and which lead to internal conflict and negative emotions.
  • Cognitive fear: foster your curiosity. Write down a list of problems you want to solve or questions that have been on your mind. Intentional scrutiny will help you move forward by turning doubt into discovery.
  • Behavioral fear: improve your emotional regulation. Create a ritual that allows you to feel calm and collected, whether it’s going for a walk, stretching, breathwork, doodling, dancing, or any other activity that creates space to explore and understand your emotions. When our emotions become steadier, a trigger for behavioral fear is less likely to push us into an overwhelming state of fight or flight.

Being in a state of fear affects how we think and act, negatively impacting our mental health, decision-making processes and personal growth. Often, multiple facets of fear may be present at once, and they may conflict or contrast with each other, leading to anxiety and paralysis. By understanding which of the four horsemen of fear you are facing, you will be better equipped to deal with your fears accordingly.

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