Persistent or chronic fear of the unknown (also known as xenophobia) can become problematic and can impact your emotional, social, and physical life as seriously as any phobia might. Lack of predictability and control can be contributing factors to fear. If little information is available to predict an outcome or make a decision, this can increase feelings of anxiety and uncertainty.
Why Do We Fear the Unknown?
Research indicates that humans have different levels of intolerance uncertainty, a naturally developed characteristic.1,2 People with high levels of intolerance uncertainty might find unknown or uncertain situations almost unbearable or have an inability to cope, impacting their ability to function. Sometimes, a fear of the unknown can be closely related to a fear of change.
Levels of fear can also be situational and based on affective personality traits like neuroticism and temperament, past experiences and trauma, and ability to adapt and cope.3
Fear of the Unknown Symptoms
When triggered, someone with xenophobia might experience symptoms like increased heart rate or adrenaline, both of which can hold you back from living life to the fullest; however, the signs and symptoms don’t stop there.4
Here are several symptoms that can arise when you fear the unknown:5
- Increased heart rate
- Increase adrenaline leading to a fight, flight, or freeze response
- Need to control your environment
- Avoiding new situations
- Avoiding school/work/social obligations
- Isolating behaviors
- Eroding self-esteem
- Highly self-critical
- Need for constant reassurance from others
- Inflexible behaviors or thoughts
- Ruminating thoughts
Who Is at Greater Risk for Experiencing the Fear of the Unknown?
Experiencing fear of the unknown is common; however, research reports that fear of the unknown has a foundational role in several mental health diagnoses.
Mental health diagnoses that put someone at greater risk of experiencing fear of the unknown include:3
- Anxiety disorders (generalized, social, health related, separation etc.)
- Obsessive compulsive disorder (OCD)
- Panic disorder
- Eating disorders
- Substance use disorders
- Post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD)
Fear of the unknown can be experienced by children and adolescents, too. One of the most prevalent diagnoses among children and adolescents is an anxiety disorder. Research shows that untreated anxiety in adolescence also increases the risk factor for mental health problems later in life.5
For many people, COVID-19 has created or exacerbated a fear of the unknown. In general, the pandemic has created a lack of predictability and control — two factors that, when lost, can worsen fear of the unknown.6
How to Tell If You Have a Fear of the Unknown
If you are wondering if you have an unrealistic fear of the unknown, ask yourself the following questions:7
- Does my fear of the unknown almost always provoke intense anxiety or panic attacks?
- Do I usually avoid any type of situation that is unfamiliar or may be unpredictable?
- In cases when I couldn’t avoid an uncertain situation, did I endure excruciating and unbearable anxiety?
- Is my fear and reaction unreasonable or exaggerated in comparison to the actual source that causes my excessive worry?
- How long have I been feeling this chronic dread of the unknown (has it been persistent for at least six months)?
- Is severe phobia of the unknown holding me back in life, preventing me from functioning well, and/or negatively impacting work/school or relationships?
If you have been experiencing these symptoms in an intense and/or sustained manner and noticing that it’s hindering your life as a result, you may be living with a chronic fear of the unknown or xenophobia.
When a Fear of the Unknown Becomes a Problem
Fear of the unknown often causes unhealthy thoughts and an intense emotional
discomfort towards uncertainty. This can be a problem when it impedes someone’s ability to adjust to ordinary changes, meet important milestones, expand personal growth, or even walk away from unacceptable circumstances.
Someone’s fear is starting to hold them back when:8,9
- Trying life changing endeavors are off limits like going to college, traveling, dating, etc.
- They stay complacent in unfulfilling jobs or relationships
- They pass on a great job opportunity, promotion, or anything else that requires getting out of their comfort zone.
- They isolate and reject invitations particularly when they involve going to new venues or meeting new people.
- They avoid beneficial personal/professional/academic demands such as taking on more complex responsibilities, challenging projects, learning new skills, etc.
13 Ways to Overcome the Fear of the Unknown
Fear of the unknown can be managed and alleviated through individual work, seeking the support of trusted individuals, seeking support of a therapist, or some combination of these methods. Recognizing, accepting, and working toward challenging fear of the unknown takes time, consistency, and adjusting strategies to find what works best. Timelines and progress will look different for each individual, so be sure to focus and celebrate your success.
Here are 13 ways to overcome the fear of the unknown:
1. Don’t Give In to Avoidance
The longer you avoid a situation the harder it can become to engage. Avoidance provides temporary relief but in the long term, it can be damaging. Take steps to re-engage yourself so it feels more manageable.
2. Understand the Causes of Your Fears
A good place to start dissolving your xenophobia is by examining what lies beneath it. Sometimes chronic fear can stem from lacking enough information, associating it with discomfort, feeling a loss of control, past trauma, and negative life experiences. Consider delving deeper into what may be causing or factoring into your overwhelming fear of the unknown. Getting to the root of your fear can bring you awareness and direct you toward the areas you need to work through so you can overcome your fears.
3. Utilize Mindful Techniques to Reduce Fearful Responses
Meditation, mindfulness, focusing on the here and now, and practicing positive thinking can help reduce feelings of worry and anxiety
4. Increase Your Self-Esteem
Practice positive affirmations, give grace to yourself, and set realistic expectations. Increasing your self-esteem will help build confidence to cope with fear of the unknown.
5. Challenge Negative Thought Patterns
Evaluate the evidence there is to support and disprove the fear, what skills you have to reduce the fear, and what is within your control.
6. Increase Your Tolerance of Uncertainty
Practice accepting uncertainty and unknowns by learning new coping skills, remembering past successes, and accepting the limits of your control.
7. Accept That You Will Fail Sometimes
Accepting that you will fail sometimes is part of life and personal growth. It doesn’t mean that you are settling, it’s simply saying, “I failed, it’s ok, next time I’ll do better,” “I failed, so what can I do to improve?” or, “I accept this setback as a part of my journey.” Admitting that failure is inevitable can help you transform it into opportunities with grace and humility. Having this mindset is simultaneously forgiving and empowering because you’re allowing yourself the space to learn while using failure as a tool moving forward.
8. Boost Your Emotional Intelligence
Having a better understanding of our emotions can help develop ways to recognize, use, and manage our emotions to reduce worry and fear.
9. Practice Regular Self-Care
Engage in activities that promote healthy mental, physical, and emotional well-being such as resting, self compassion, scheduling social or leisure time, and engaging in enjoyable activities.
10. Reach Out to a Friend
Verbalizing fears of the unknown to a trusted person can help reduce anxiety and worry. A trusted friend can help challenge the fear, suggest coping strategies, or provide support by listening.
11. Find Small Ways to Embrace Change
Finding small ways to embrace change can lessen your fear of uncertainty. This tactic can train your brain to slowly warm up to possible hurdles down the road or navigating uncharted territory. You can start by incorporating tiny modifications to your daily routines, like taking an alternate route home, switching up a workout routine, or learning a new skill. Gradually introducing new things or altering certain habits can strengthen your resiliency when the unpredictable happens.
12. Go to Therapy
Licensed mental health professionals can provide a safe space to process and challenge fears as well as develop new skills to reduce fear of the unknown.
13. Attend Group Therapy
Allows for support and encouragement from other group members who have experienced similar struggles. Group therapy also builds a support network of people who can suggest helpful strategies.
When A Professional Can Help
It can be difficult to determine when to seek professional help when struggling with fear of the unknown, but it requires an honest evaluation about how much the fear of the unknown is negatively impacting areas of your life.
Here are some questions to reflect upon when deciding whether to seek help:
- Is my fear of the unknown preventing me from doing things I am interested in?
- Am I isolating myself from people, places, or things because I am fearful?
- Are my relationships negatively impacted?
- Has my anxiety, fear, or depression worsened?
- Am I missing out on opportunities because I am fearful of the unknown?
- Are a majority of my thoughts and behaviors related to my fear of the unknown?
- Have trusted individuals in my life suggested I seek help for my fears?
If you answered yes to any or a few of these questions, it might be beneficial to seek individual or group therapy. There is help and support available — you do not have to suffer and struggle alone. Fear of the unknown is manageable and there are people out there who are willing to help and offer support.
Treatments for Fear of the Unknown
The earlier you treat your xenophobia the better, because if unaddressed it can worsen and lead to other complications over time. Entering therapy can provide a safe place for you to discuss and process your emotions related to your excessive fear of uncertainty. With the assistance of a mental health professional, you can gain insight into your condition, explore helpful suitable solutions, and learn adaptive skills to cope when acute symptoms arise.
Therapy can be delivered in the form of face-to-face, group, or tele-health format. Your treatment plan will vary depending on your specific needs, severity of symptoms, lifestyle, etc. However, you can expect to engage in some type of CBT-based approach like exposure therapy and/or mindfulness techniques to tackle different aspects of your phobia. In some cases, medication may be necessary, and a health practitioner can work with you to find a proper pharmacological option.
Who Should I Consult for Help?
The person you consult with should be someone with expertise who you feel comfortable with. Therapy is a deeply personal investment and a collaborative relationship. Your therapist should also be able to recommend group therapy. So, how do you choose? Start your search and make your match on an online therapist directory.