Are the Fears Behind Anxiety Rational or Irrational Fears?

March 28, 2012 Jodi Lobozzo Aman, LCSW-R

Can fears can be assessed as rational or irrational? Are some fears valid while other's aren't? Who decides what irrational or rational fear is? Let's find out.

I find the concept that fears can be assessed as rational or irrational hilarious. Does this mean some fears are valid and other are not? How do we know which fears are legitimate, rational, right?

Say, your mother has cancer and you are afraid of her dying. Is that considered a rational anxiety, because she actually might die? Everybody is going to die. Fear of one’s mom dying is actually a fear of being afraid when mom is dying, or most accurately fear of not be able to handle the anxiety when mom dies. Is that rational?

Rational or Irrational, Nothing Is a "True Fear"

If behind all fears is the fear of fear, (an illusion) then ‘true fear’ is an oxymoron.

Can you handle fear?We mistakenly think some fear is "rational." It is as if some fears have evidence and some don’t. Let me let you in on a secret: The evidence is an illusion. The meaning is construed to support the fear.

  • “It could happen.”
  • “You can’t trust yourself.”
  • “It will be awful.”

These are what the fear tells us, to get us to buy in. This doesn't mean it is true! However, many of us get caught; hook, line and sinker. If you think about it, they may hold the energy of fear’s evidence, but they don’t really mean anything.

Conversation with Irrational Fear Trying to Appear Rational

“You have to do this or else.” Fear says.

Or else what?

“Or else something bad will happen.”

What, what will happen?

“Something real bad. You will hate it. It will be awful.”

Damned if we know and fear doesn’t tell us. The evasiveness is part of the PR plan to hold the market on our lives. Evasiveness is fear's trademark. The mystery of it gives it power.

Twelve-year-old Samantha came to see me for therapy. She’s experienced many losses over the last few years. Her younger sister was hospitalized from a life threatening illness that left her permanently disabled. Both her maternal grandparents died within a few months of each other. Her parents got separated and divorced. And her mother had gone through her own bout of breast cancer, incurring surgeries, radiation and chemotherapy treatments.

Through all of this, Samantha remained calm and engaged in life and school. Now it is one year since any tragedies, and she began to feel excessively anxious in school, needing to call her mother several times during the school day. She was worried about her mother dying by the cancer returning, getting kidnapped, ‘just stopping breathing’ or getting into a car accident.

Many family members were curious how she was strong through the troubling times, only to be immobilized once everything was peaceful. Her school counselor, who had been supporting her, offered the following explanation: You were young before and did not understand the serious nature of the events when they were happening. Now you understand and that is why you are afraid.

Oh no! I thought. This comment might not sound too fatuous off hand. However, I propose that it elevated Samantha’s anxiety to a truth status: Now you are smart enough to know you are supposed to be afraid. You should be afraid of these things. Fearing these things is right, you were just too stupid before.

Not helpful. It constructed the anxiety as "rational," associating it with being more mature, more knowledgeable and, I hate to say it, more normal. This confirmed anxiety for her, making matters worse.

Irrational and rational are just meanings we make to chide or justify ourselves. One more way to assess we are on or off track. It is judgment plain and simple and it is one more way to keep us attached to anxiety. Do any of you want to be attached to anxiety? I don't! Treatment needs to deconstruct that "We should be afraid."

Fear is Not Rational or Irrational: Fear is Relative

What is apparent is that fear is relative. It is not real or imagined; logical or illogical; rational or irrational; valid or invalid. Fear is just an experience. It may be an intense experience and have many unappreciated effects on our lives. But, the good news is, we can change it.

Next time ask fear and anxiety: What is the worst that can happen?

I blog here: Heal Now and Forever Be In Peace,
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APA Reference
Lobozzo, J. (2012, March 28). Are the Fears Behind Anxiety Rational or Irrational Fears?, HealthyPlace. Retrieved on 2024, June 18 from

Author: Jodi Lobozzo Aman, LCSW-R

December, 15 2015 at 11:40 am

What's the worst that can happen?
I have an intrusive suicidal thought, which I have acted upon, plus severe anxiety due to this intrusive thought, so "what's the worst that can happen?" well, I could commit suicide.

In reply to by Anonymous (not verified)

December, 15 2015 at 5:21 pm

Hello Claire,
Jodi is no longer writing for Healthy Place so is unable to respond to comments. I think you're right. The worst that can happen is committing suicide. Sometimes, thinking of the best (or at least the good) that can happen is more helpful. In the face of an intrusive suicidal thought, perhaps consider thinking about what good will happen when you don't act on it, and then how can you reduce your anxiety just enough to get to that good. It's not a quick fix, but it's a powerful way to shift your mindset over time.

July, 30 2015 at 4:29 pm

Irrational: I live in a suburb of Minneapolis and I fear I will be shot by sniper if I step out my front door. I should apply many psychological coping strategies to gently move towards leaving the house by the front door.
Rational: I live in a suburb in Afghanistan and I fear I will be shot by a sniper if I step out my front door. I should apply many psychological coping strategies to gently move towards leaving my house by the BACK door.
This concept doesn't belittle fear nor people's ability to live with it. But there is a difference, and the difference is that in a rational fear you really should take precautions to protect yourself from real danger, in addition to learning psychological coping strategies.

In reply to by Anonymous (not verified)

July, 31 2015 at 6:35 pm

Hi Tammy,
Jodi is no longer writing for HealthyPlace so can't respond to comments. The perspective you share is an important one. There are indeed times when fear serves to keep people safe. Other times, it works against us. Knowing the difference is important. Thanks for your insight!

December, 24 2014 at 3:23 am

This article hasn't helped at all. Also writing a comment on an anxiety form "whats the worst that can happen?" only leaves someone with anxiety to worry more.

In reply to by Anonymous (not verified)

December, 28 2014 at 11:41 am

Hi Vicky,
Everyone's anxiety is very personal, so everyone's response to different ideas is also personal. HealthyPlace seeks to offer a wide variety of perspectives and techniques for people to consider and then use or dismiss according to their own needs. Keep seeking perspectives on anxiety to find what works for you personally!

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Dr Musli Ferati
April, 6 2012 at 3:15 am

Anxiety encompases our life forever and anywhere. But the fear of anxiety indicates somewhat an high level of anxiety disorder that damage global life functioning in serious manner. As a matter of fact,anxiety experiences have got cumulative effect, particularly if it is of chonic character. Such case is to Samantha, where many stressful events has occured in relatively short time interval. However, I agree with your opinion that anxiety is relative undesirable emotional experience. The crucial problem in this direction, is if it render daily life activity of respective person in critical level.

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Tina Barbour
March, 28 2012 at 3:44 pm

How is the fear we feel in response to real danger, or the intuitive fear we feel even when we can't say what's causing it (I'm thinking of the book "The Gift of Fear") different from the -- I don't even know what to call it--the anxious/OCD fear? When we feel fear, how do we know how to respond? This is a hard one for me. . . .

In reply to by Anonymous (not verified)

March, 28 2012 at 4:04 pm

Read my post, see link on side, The Biology of Fear. In it I speak about the flight or fight hormone which is the biological basis of fear. We do need this as it helps us survive. But as i told Nikky, once you respond, the fear is left over with no purpose. Once you act, you need to let go of the fear and trust your actions or stay alert and realize when to shift or be flexible or do something else. Now a days fear has un immobilized, one of the worst things you can do... Thanks for coming by!

March, 28 2012 at 8:09 am

I know all kinds of fear, and I would love to know how to change it. I think in some situations, it is not possible. If you are standing and have someone extremely angry pointing a gun to your head, how can you not feel the fear? Being anxious about something that might happen, or might not is easy to control, but the fear under the bombs? we can just calm it a little, we used to calm it by singing

In reply to by Anonymous (not verified)

March, 28 2012 at 8:21 am

The fear you feel in those danger situations is biological, the flight or fight hormone. It is necessary to give you energy to respond to try and save yourself. Once you respond the fear thinking, or later the fear triggered by the memory is just suffering.

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