Can You Have a Fear of the Unknown?

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Fear of the unknown can make it difficult to cope with life's uncertainties.

Those with a fear of the unknown may experience significant distress and anxiety surrounding that which is unknown or uncertain and may go to great lengths to seek certainty, even if it comes at a personal cost.

Read on to learn more about the signs and symptoms of someone who has a fear of the unknown, as well as the potential causes, treatments, and ways to cope with this psychological condition.

Definition

Fear of the unknown has been defined by researchers as a fear caused by a perceived lack of information.

Intolerance of uncertainty is another related term for a fear that stems from a perceived lack of information. Intolerance of uncertainty may cause an individual to be incapable of coping with an uncertain situation.

The unknown is a term closely related to other terms like uncertainty, unfamiliarity, and strange.

Fear of the unknown may cause a person to have negative feelings towards situations that are uncertain in some way, or the person may process information differently in the face of ambiguity or uncertainty.

Symptoms

Like many fears or phobias, symptoms may vary between people. Those with a fear of the unknown may experience intense feelings of distress and anxiety and may even experience panic attacks.

Symptoms associated with this type of anxiety can occur suddenly and without warning and can be very distressing for the person experiencing the symptoms.

Physical symptoms that can happen due to this include:

  • Rapid heartbeat
  • Trouble breathing
  • Shortness of breath
  • Sweating
  • Chills
  • Pain in the chest
  • Tightness in the chest
  • Hot flushes
  • Trembles
  • Upset stomach
  • Feelings of choking
  • Headaches
  • Feeling dizzy
  • Nausea
  • Feeling faint or lightheaded
  • Pins and needles
  • Dry mouth
  • A ringing sound in the ears
  • Numbness
  • Desire to go to the toilet
  • Feelings of disorientation
  • Confusion

Fear of the unknown may prevent people from going about the activities of their daily life and can cause anxiety or depression.

Those with intolerance of uncertainty may engage in unnecessary behaviors in an attempt to seek certainty. Unfortunately, this may come at a personal cost.

The relief provided by such actions is only temporary, given that there is no way of guaranteeing safety. Because of this, negative beliefs surrounding the unknown or uncertain may be reinforced for the individual experiencing the fear.

Those with a fear of the unknown may also experience difficulty making plans or decisions because they feel a need to know the outcome.

Causes

Fear can be caused by a number of factors and may develop during childhood, in adolescence, or in early adulthood. Many fears can be traced to a negative experience in childhood that may have been traumatic.

It is also believed that phobias can stem from a learned history. If a child has a parent who is particularly anxious about the unknown, the child may also go on to develop a fear of the unknown.

Having parents who are anxious may have an effect on how a person copes with anxiety in their later life.

Genetics and brain chemistry are believed to play a role in more complex phobias. When a person encounters a situation that is unknown, their body reacts by going through a number of changes.

These include:

  • Changes in brain activity
  • Release of insulin
  • Release of cortisol
  • Release of growth hormones
  • Increase in heart rate
  • Increase in blood pressure
  • Release of adrenaline

When this happens, a person may experience sweaty palms or a fast heartbeat, among other symptoms. These symptoms are real and the result of a biological response to the fear of the unknown.

Treatment

Those who experience a fear of the unknown or intolerance of uncertainty may find their level of worry and distress to be excessive and may benefit from treatment.

Treatment options may include self-help techniques, counseling, cognitive behavioral therapy, and exposure therapy.

Self-Help Techniques

Trying self-help techniques may be helpful for some people with a fear of the unknown.

Some ideas to try can include:

  • Making lifestyle changes to reduce panic attacks. These include exercising regularly, eating healthy foods, getting enough sleep, and avoiding stimulants like caffeine.
  • Attending a support group
  • Practicing relaxation techniques like deep breathing
  • Practicing visualization, which involves visualizing in your mind how you may cope successfully with a situation that is unknown or uncertain

Counseling

Counseling is a form of psychological therapy in which a therapist helps develop strategies for dealing with issues like fear and panic attacks.

During counseling sessions, you will talk about your feelings and fears without judgment. The therapist will then help you understand how you are feeling and help you develop solutions you feel comfortable with.

Cognitive Behavioral Therapy

Cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) is a form of treatment often used to treat phobias. It helps people by changing how they behave or think in response to a certain stimulus.

During CBT, your healthcare provider may use exposure therapy to help address your fears. This will involve gradually exposing you to the unknown so that the anxiety associated with uncertain situations lessens over time.

Coping

Dealing with a fear of the unknown can be difficult. Along with the above treatment options, there are steps you can take to help cope with your fear.

The American Psychological Association suggests trying the following tips to cope:

  • Try not to dwell on things that are beyond your control
  • Be kind to yourself and remember that everyone has a different level of tolerance for the unknown or uncertain
  • Try and learn a new skill to build your confidence
  • Practice self-care, including exercise, eating well, and getting enough sleep
  • Limit your exposure to news, especially right before you go to sleep
  • Reach out to friends and family for support
  • Reflect on a past stressful event you have managed to overcome
  • Seek help from a therapist or psychologist
  • Focus on the things you can control

Summary

Fear of the unknown is an intense fear of uncertain or unknown situations. Those with this fear may experience significant distress or anxiety due to a perceived lack of information about a situation. As a result, they may go to great lengths to seek certainty, even though this relief may only be temporary. Treatment to help alleviate a fear of the unknown may include counseling, cognitive behavioral therapy, and lifestyle changes to reduce anxiety.

A Word From Verywell

Dealing with a fear of any kind is difficult, and those with a fear of the unknown may find their anxiety impacts their daily life. However, help is available for those experiencing this type of distress. If you are worried about your mental health or are experiencing an irrational fear of any kind, remember you are not alone. Consider reaching out to friends or family or a trained medical professional to help cope with your fears.

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11 Sources
Verywell Health uses only high-quality sources, including peer-reviewed studies, to support the facts within our articles. Read our editorial process to learn more about how we fact-check and keep our content accurate, reliable, and trustworthy.
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