What better time of year than Halloween to examine fear? What’s really so terrifying about the dark? About a spider? And why have we forgotten what those youthful terrors feel like?

Daniel Pine, a National Institute of Mental Health researcher, will be one of the experts at a public forum on fear tomorrow evening at the Koshland Science Museum. One of the subjects on the agenda of “The science of fear: Is it all in your head?” is how fears can morph or disappear as we get older.

Pine agreed to join me for an e-mail Q&A on the subject. An edited version of our conversation is below.

More information on Wednesday’s panel, sponsored by the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, the journal of the NAS and the Koshland Science Museum, located in Washington, D.C., is here.

Q. Are there certain types of situations that tend to inspire fear in children and adolescents more readily than they do in adults? If so, why?

Pine: There is a very strong relationship between age and the types of fears that people report in many different cultures. This tells us that there is something fundamental about the development, as it relates to fear.  This begins early in life with fears of strangers,  followed by fear of separation. Next, fears of very particular objects and scenarios arise, typically around the school age years. This includes things like fears of animals, thunderstorms, and the dark. Next, in adolescence, fears of various types of social experiences take on prominence — fear of meeting new kids, particularly of the opposite gender. Finally, in early adulthood, fear focus on more abstract constructs, such as fear [of] not measuring up to one’s ideals, as a human. 


Q. Why do children outgrow certain fears but not others?

 Pine: We think that these changes relate to the effects of many complex factors, involving both genetics and experience. These changes undoubtedly relate to changes in the brain, but we are only beginning to understand these changes.


Q. Are there parenting approaches that can alleviate fear?

 Pine: In general, the more supportive parents can be in helping their child to face their fears, the more helpful this can be. We know that fears typically abate with exposure. One of the major hurdles of parenting an anxious child is to help children to face their fears in a way that does not overwhelm them. [An example would be] going to a school on the first day. The parent who can help the child overcome their fear of this so that the child ultimately can “make it” to school that day is really helping that child.


Q. What’s the difference between fear and anxiety?

 Pine: Different scientists view these two terms from different perspectives, with some even viewing them the same. The most common difference relates to proximity. From this perspective, the term “fear” typically is used to refer to the reaction to an immediately-present threat.  The term “anxiety” is used to refer to the reaction to a more persistent but less proximate threat.    


Q. If a child develops an anxiety disorder, is there a chance they will outgrow it?

 Pine: Most children with an anxiety disorder will no longer meet criteria for their or any other anxiety disorder by the time they reach late adolescence. 

We are only just beginning to understand what determines the ultimate outcome of anxiety. In general, anxiety that is more severe and pervasive is less likely to remit; similarly, exposure also does appear to play some role here.