Brian Pennie

The Science Of Fear And The Words That Feed It

“The only thing we have to fear is fear itself” Franklin D. Roosevelt

Language is powerful.

It is how we acquire many of our fears.

I suffered with chronic anxiety for most of my adult life; the physical sensations of which were focused around my chest. Fully supported by an overactive mind, I developed a morbid fear of my own heartbeat.

A difficult thing to escape for sure.

In a bid to run away from these fears, I ventured into the world of addiction.

Paralyzed by my own mind, this is where I stayed for 15 years.

With the help of meditation, I have been free from anxiety and addiction for nearly five years. But even today, I get agitated when I hear the word “heart.”

It’s only a word, but it has an impact.

My own experiences might seem a little extreme…

But have you ever woken up in the dead of the night, and felt completely overwhelmed by your own mind?

Thoughts racing…

Self-talk only making things worse.

Why does this happen?

Because how you think, and the language that you use, is a vehicle for emotion.

Exciting research shows that emotions literally travel through language.

This paradigm is best illustrated by a process known as fear conditioning. This is a form of learning where a behavior becomes associated with a stimulus that produces fear. For instance, if a person goes to a shopping mall and has a panic attack, they might avoid shopping malls in the future through their association panic and fear.

This form of learning has also been demonstrated in language. In one study, individuals were repeatedly presented with a meaningless word (e.g. “VUK” ) which was followed by an electric shock. An association was learned where they became fearful of the word “VUK” when it was presented on its own.

The word “VUK” was then repeatedly associated with another meaningless word “ZID”, without the shock. When presented on it’s own, the word “ZID” produced a fearful response even though it was never directly paired with the shock.

The words alone provided a vehicle for fear.

Why is this important?

Because it’s not just fear. Language is the currency for many of our psychological experiences.

If you think and talk happy, you’ll feel happy.

But if you’re mindset is based on anxiety and fear, this is how you’ll feel.

Language and fear in the real world

Imagine you have a fear of snakes and reptiles. You are going on holiday to Mexico, and someone tells you to be careful of Mexican axolotls.

You ask: “what is a Mexican axolotl?”

“A type of salamander” they say.

You’re unsure what a salamander is, so you check the Oxford English Dictionary. This is what it says: “a mythical lizard-like creature said to live in fire or to be able to withstand its effects.”

You already had a fear of lizards, so now you’re absolutely petrified of Mexican axolotls.

You even think of cancelling your holiday.

The thing is, your fear is based purely on language; through what you’ve read, and what you think. You’ve never even seen a picture of a Mexican axolotl. Never mind come face to face with one.

This is what a Mexican axolotl looks like.

Not so scary is it?

Words hurt

“Sticks and stones may break my bones but names will never hurt me.”

Unfortunately this is not true.

Words can hurt.

Words have power.

Agitation, tension, anxiety, and stress. These are not mental concepts; they are physical reactions to both real and perceived difficulties.

They are all forms of our fight and flight response, the body’s reaction to challenging events.

This occurs when the brain sends signals to the body to prepare us for fight or flight. Stored energy is released resulting in increased muscle strength, sweating, rapid heart rate, heightened awareness, and a general feeling of apprehension.

This process evolved as a basic survival mechanism, and was highly adaptive thousands of years ago.

But we are not fighting saber-tooth tigers anymore.

We are fighting with our own minds.

We are worrying about deadlines, relationships, money, and popularity.

We are fighting about what we should have done, and what we’re afraid to do.


Our brains are easily confused.

It will still spit out signals thinking a deadline is a physical fight. This is the essence of modern day stress and anxiety, and it’s intrinsically linked to language. If this sounds a little disheartening, don’t worry, there is a solution.

Speaking to reality

I could easily start talking about mindfulness, meditation, Buddhism, or Zen.

Each of these practices are great, but they are only words and concepts until you put them into action. (See this link for a basic introduction into mindfulness)

If you’re not familiar with these practices, it’s best to keep it simple.

Contact reality.

This means paying attention to sensory experiences: touching, feeling, tasting, smelling, and seeing.

Focus on your breath.

Listen to the wind.

Gaze at the stars.

Feel your clothes touching your skin.

You can use any sensory experience.

This is how you contact the present moment.

This is the essence of meditation.

We must abandon language to speak to reality.

When you focus on reality, you get out of your head.

The next time you feel stressed, take ten deep breaths, and focus on the air at your nostrils. Notice the cold air flowing in, and the warm air flowing out. Thoughts will arise in the background, they always do. The idea is to catch yourself getting hi-jacked by your story, and then go back to your breath.

Another form of meditation involves self-observation. Like leaves floating down a river, or clouds gliding through the sky, simply observe your thoughts without becoming attached to them. Just watch them come and go. Don’t engage. Sit on the balcony. Be the observer.

When you observe without attachment, words lose their potency.

Words are powerful, but you don’t have to suffer.

A dose of reality can loosen their hold.

But thinking is also a beautiful thing…

So if you feed yourself with words, think positive thoughts, and hopefully they’ll taste delicious.

Do You FEAR Change?

If not, check out the free program I used to make remarkable changes in my life.

Click here to get the program now!

I also regularly post material about life, change, and purpose on Twitter and Instagram.


    1. Thanks so much Kate. Really appreciate the feedback. Language is a tricky subject to talk about, which is fairly ironic. Specifically, language as a vehicle for emotion is massively interesting to me and huge part of my academic research. Planning a Better Humans article on it soon. Thanks fort eh erad and comment 🙂

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    Brian Pennie