• Michael Whaby

Fear of Imaginary Things: Behaviors and Realities

Updated: Oct 24, 2020

By Michael Whaby

“Fear (noun): An unpleasant, often strong emotion caused by anticipation or awareness of danger and accompanied by increased autonomic activity.”—Merriam-Webster

When we were little, fear of imaginary things might have kept us up at night or prevented us from going into a dark room alone. Fast forward to later in life, and fear of imaginary things prevents us from doing things as well—sometimes very important things. This fear prevents us from carrying out the 3rd rule from Stephen Covey’s book, The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People: Put first things first. How does the fear of imaginary things prevent this? Let’s talk more about that.

Fear of imaginary things???

You’re probably thinking that there’s no way that you fear imaginary things. I am confident, however, that I can think of a common situation where at least one person reading this would surrender their position on the argument. Instead of calling anyone out, I’ll just use my own experience.

When I was younger I was scared of the monster under my bed; however, I was terrified of the deep end of the pool. Why? Because I feared drowning. In fact, drowning is a very real thing. But I only feared the imagination about what could happen if I jumped in. I could swim fine. Technically, I was just scared of the monster under the bed.

How did I overcome my fear of that imaginary monster? I looked under the bed, even crawled under the bed—no monster. I overcame my fear of the deep of the pool end in a similar manner: I was pushed in by the lifeguard on duty. Time seemed to slow down as I thought the end of my life was approaching. It’s amazing how your brain works involuntarily in situations like that (I’ll talk a little bit about that in the next section). Obviously, I survived. I did submerge in the water, however, I shot out of the water just as fast, swimming just fine.

Now that I’ve wasted your time on a story that probably doesn’t seem applicable to your life, let me connect the dots with a similar story from later in my life. In my earlier college years, I convinced myself that professors were the academic versions of the monster under the bed. So, I avoided them at all costs.

This avoidance wouldn’t have been much of a problem if I didn’t need help or guidance, but I needed it. Avoiding my professors early in my undergraduate education proved to be a big mistake. By the time I mustered the courage to approach one of my professors about my performance, his only advice for me was to drop the class.

Why did it take me so long to approach my professor for help? If I had met with him sooner, then he could have told me what I could to do to pass the class. Think back to the deep end of the pool. What’s the difference between these two situations? Not much, except I didn’t have someone pushing me into the deep end.

Often, you must take it upon yourself to jump into the deep end or look under the bed. By doing so, you’ll find that it isn’t so scary. Contrary to popular belief, (most) professors want you to succeed!

The message here is to not let your imagination create things that cause you to fear looking under the bed—or achieving your goals. Remember, the ability to put first things first requires the realization that some things aren’t as bad as they seem.

Speaking of fear….

A little bit about fear

As a refresher, the Merriam-Webster definition of fear is, “an unpleasant, often strong emotion caused by anticipation or awareness of danger and accompanied by increased autonomic activity.” Autonomic activity is mediated by the sympathetic nervous system. If you haven’t heard of the sympathetic nervous system, then maybe you’ve heard of the fight-or-flight response that it mediates. Being chased by a bear may initiate this response, but it is also triggered by many other stressors or fears that we experience in our everyday lives.

How does our brain perceive and process fear? The amygdala—a limbic structure that sits under the cortex in the temporal lobe of the brain—interprets images and sounds from sensory input. If the amygdala perceives danger from these stimuli, it sends an “oh shit” signal to the hypothalamus, which then activates the sympathetic nervous system. In sync with a slew of hormones, the resulting autonomic activity results in: increased heart rate, vasoconstriction (in the skin, kidneys and gastrointestinal tract), vasodilation (in the heart and skeletal muscle), bronchodilation (lungs), pupil dilation, etc.—all to increase your chances of survival in times of need, like when being chased by a bear. Thank you, evolution. Unfortunately, this physiological response tends to out-do itself sometimes, though, especially when it comes to imaginary things.

Take a study, for example, that was highlighted in the book Behave by Robert Sapolsky: Participants were told that they were going to receive an electric shock at a random time. The amygdalae of those that had waited a longer time to receive a shock were essentially screaming compared to those that did not have to wait as long. In fact, most people preferred to be shocked immediately. Now, re-read the Merriam-Webster definition of fear. Fig. 1 illustrates how we experience increasing levels of emotion as the length of time anticipating a stimulus increases. But why is this information relevant to our fear of imaginary things? And how can we apply this knowledge to overcome this fear?

Fig. 1: Relationship between level of emotion and length of time awaiting stimulus.

Utilizing our new understanding of fear

Think back to the participants of that dreadful study: waiting a longer time to receive the shock caused more anxiety and fear. In parallel to this, the longer that we avoid things that intimidate us, the more intense those fears become. Considering this, we can push ourselves—much like the lifeguard did to me—to quickly confront our fears so we can put first things first.

Procrastination is the Holy Land for intensifying our anxieties and fears; it is a way to put off doing unpleasant things that you should be getting done. I believe that procrastination can yield creativity in some respect—there is healthy procrastination—but try not to procrastinate if you don’t want to fear imaginary things for the rest of your life. The relief of realizing that your fears are imaginary by confronting them is much more rewarding than letting those fears intensify by avoiding them. Action and initiative will alleviate your fear and anxiety. Just do it.


Lastly, I want to touch on the fear of criticism. If we can’t accept criticism, then we are going to remain in the shallow end of the pool with our floaties on. I was a victim of this. I didn’t want to go to my professor’s office because I knew that I was doing poorly, and I didn’t want to be told so. I would rather make excuses to accommodate for my failures instead of being responsible and learning from the mistakes that I was making.

I cannot stress this enough: BE SHAMELESS. Everyone messes up. Those that succeed will be the ones that face their mistakes and learn what they can do to improve upon them. Don’t fear criticism, seek and accept it.

Now what?

Conclusively, ask yourself: What’s bigger, your desire to achieve your goals or your fear of the steps necessary to accomplish them? Try to remember these few things the next time you want to push off something that needs done:

1) You’re scared of imaginary things

2) You shouldn’t be scared of imaginary things

3) Imaginary things aren’t real unless proven to be so

4) Putting first things first FAILS when you visit the Holy Land of procrastination

5) The longer you wait, the more intense your fear of imaginary things become

By the way, you are 100% supposed to be scared of bears if they approach you in the wild. Our central nervous system is great at its job, but sometimes it does too much. Overstimulation of anxiety or fear stemming from the wrong context, like being socially self-conscious, can have dramatic impacts on our lives. Don’t psych yourself out. Be brave and act early; everything will be just peachy. So, jump in! The water is fine.

References and Recommendations

Journal Articles:

Steimer T. (2002). The biology of fear- and anxiety-related behaviors. Dialogues in clinical neuroscience, 4(3), 231–249.

Adolphs, R. (2013). The biology of fear. Current Biology 23(2), R79–93.


Covey, S. R. (1989). The 7 habits of highly effective people: Wisdom and insights. Philadelphia: Running Press.

Sapolsky, R. M. (2018). One Second Before. In Behave: The Biology of Humans at Our Best and Worst (pp. 21-80). Penguin Books.

Shwartz, D. J. (2015). The Magic Of Thinking Big. U. St.: Magdalene Press.

YouTube Videos:

Inside the Mind of a Master Procrastinator | Tim Urban (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=arj7oStGLkU&t=183s)

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