How to use fear as motivation to improve


Kevin Mangelschots


  • Fear can be a powerful short-term motivator.
  • It can make us change our behavior for the better.
  • Dread is not a healthy long-term incentive.
  • Being slightly frightened can increase productivity.
  • Being too scared decreases productivity.
  1. Make sure the fear isn’t too overwhelming

    Image of a woman who's overwhelmed by fear and is experiencing feelings of anxiety as a result.

    Psychology teaches us that we can use fear as a powerful motivator as long as that negative emotion isn’t too overwhelming.

    It’s a delicate balance because, on one hand, the discomfort needs to be strong enough so that we’re incited to induce a change, yet it shouldn’t be so intense that we’re paralyzed by fright.

    We know that experiencing an overbearing amount of stress decreases our productivity while making us undergo more negative emotions. That’s exactly what we’re trying to prevent here because that will only be detrimental to our fruitfulness and personal well-being.

  2. Figure out why you’re afraid

    Uncomfortable sensations such as pain and fear are attempts of our body to tell us something by basically begging us to listen. And fearfulness means we’ll have to alter our actions to reduce this uneasy feeling.

    But that’s hard if you don’t know why you’re afraid, or how you’re going to have to modify your behavior to make the uncomfortableness go away, or lessen.

    So one of the first steps is figuring out why you’re afraid, whether that fear is sensible or not, and what will happen if we don’t do anything to change our ways.

  3. Own your fear

    “Own it!” written on a yellow background in black letters.

    Instead of desperately trying to hide your anxiety, or trying to act like it doesn’t exist, own the fact that you’re feeling that naturally occurring emotion. There’s no shame in it since everyone’s bound up to experience fright at one point in their lives.

    You’re only able to change your fate when you’re capable of accepting that you’re fearful and that you need to switch it up if you wish to avoid these sensations in the future.

    That’s simply not possible when we’re too busy denying and concealing the fact that we’re scared of something.

  4. What’s the goal you want to achieve

    While the goal is most probably trying to reduce these negative sensations, it’s most likely also related to an end you’re seeking to achieve in life. A higher purpose, so to speak.

    For instance, we might want to stop being socially anxious when interacting with strangers to quit feeling awkward and uncomfortable. But the overarching goal in your existence might be to improve your social skills by talking to those around you and to stop feeling judged all the time.

    Simply eliminating the fear is too shallow of a goal. We need to know the true, and full extent of what that concern is trying to tell us to prevent it from coming back down the road.

  5. Make plans to change

    A woman creating an idea, plan, action triangle.

    Blindly winging a solution is a surefire way to end in disaster instead of taking the time to create a proper plan of action that takes into account possible hurdles, and what you’re searching to achieve.

    You need to realize what actions you need to take before you can reduce your anxiousness, which entails fully understanding what the issue is, and why you’re feeling that way.

  6. Analyze potential hurdles

    Life is filled with hurdles, and getting rid of fear is no different. Because if it was easy, everyone would do it. And that’s why a lot of people continue to experience fear without ever truly fixing the problem. It’s a lot more convenient trying to act like nothing’s wrong by ignoring the issue, but that’s only going to make matters worse in the end.

    Decipher what’s going to be hard for you to change, and what can go wrong when trying to alter your conduct. We’re only human after all, and that automatically means that lots of things can, and will probably go incorrectly.

  7. Eliminate obstacles

    Image of people climbing over obstacles in the dark.

    Writing down the pros and cons of your plans, and achieving your goals can aid in targeting actual, or imaginary issues.

    While we’re inclined to feel negative emotions more strongly, it’s important to analyze the probability that these negative events are going to end up happening. Because we often suffer more in imagination than reality, which means we usually think things are going to go worse than they do.

  8. Put your plan into action

    Enact what you’ve been planning to do all along. This is the hardest part since talk is cheap, but altering something we’ve been doing for a long time is extremely challenging. We’re creatures of habit, much more so than we realize most of the time.

    Still, you can do it. Believe in yourself, and try to follow the program you’ve put so much time and effort into beforehand. But don’t become inflexible either. When you notice that your plan isn’t perfect, or that you can improve some things on the spot, then you should do so.

  9. Evaluate your results

    Did the system work according to plan? Are you satisfied with the outcomes of your modified behavior?

    If the answer is yes, then good job. You’ve reduced your fear and achieved your goal by altering your conduct.

    If not, don’t despair. Just because something didn’t work out the way we wanted it to doesn’t mean it wasn’t effective at all. Attempt to modify your plan to suit your ends, and to get rid of the dread that’s been bothering you once and for all.

Frequently Asked Questions (FAQ)

Why is fear a good motivator in the short term?

The quote, “once you slay one fear, you'll conquer many fears” written in white letters. By Robin Sharma.

While fear is typically seen as a negative, uncomfortable emotion, it is also one of the most powerful motivators since we’re more driven to prevent painful experiences than we are motivated to chase positive emotions.

While leading by fear isn’t recommended, and can only work in the short run, fear as a motivator can work if, and only if there’s a solution that goes along with it.

Here’s why being afraid can work as a motivator:

Heightened senses

You’re more alert because of your increased mental alertness when you’re anxious.

Be mindful, though, that being too frightened means you’re going to be less productive since your senses get overloaded. That’s why being slightly fearful, but not overly alarmed, is preferred. Unfortunately, that’s such a difficult balance to achieve and maintain.

Being more aware of your surroundings, your actions, and what to change allows you to alter certain conducts to achieve your goals.

Increased perseverance

Image of the quote, “perseverance is failing 19 times and succeeding the 20th” written in white letters on a black background. A quote by Julie Andrews.

It’s easier to persevere when you’re afraid of the consequences if you don’t do so. A purpose typically guides our behavior. If we think about this logically, then it makes sense that we wish to avoid agonizing, and negative sensations by getting rid of the thing(s) that make us scared.

That’s the perfect motive to modify what we’re currently doing to reduce our feelings of anxiety since nobody likes feelings of uneasiness. Still, learning to embrace uncertainty and some nervousness is essential since they’re both components of life, and normal when venturing into new, unexplored territories.

There are two types of motivation that we can use to explain our behavior:

  1. Intrinsic motivation/internal motivation

    Intrinsic motivation comes from within us. We feel impelled because we’re doing something meaningful to us. After all, it matches our personal beliefs, values, or interests.

    An example is volunteering to help those in need, or playing a sport because you enjoy it, rather than doing so to win trophies.

  2. Extrinsic motivation/external motivation

    Illustration depicting the differences between intrinsic, and extrinsic motivation.
    Illustration depicting the differences between intrinsic, and extrinsic motivation.

    Extrinsic motivation comes from outside of us, meaning we’re motivated because of an external reward, or to avoid punishment, which can be seen as a reward in itself.

    An illustration of extrinsic motivation at play is working overtime because we’re afraid we’re going to be fired, or demoted at work. Another possible instance is playing sports to win trophies instead of doing so because you like it.

While both can be viable, and strong motivators, external motivators typically don’t last as long since they’re temporal, and because we don’t find them as meaningful as internal motivators.

What we can say is that we’re more motivated when we can gain an immediate reward, rather than gaining a larger, yet delayed gratification. Nevertheless, learning to delay the desire for instant gratification is one of the key factors to become successful.

Why is fear not a good motivator in the long term?

  1. Decreased productivity

    A graph depicting the optimal arousal for performance.

    Our productivity will decrease instead of increasing when we’re overpowered by the amount of stress we’re going through. It’s possible that we can offset this detrimental aspect by preventing the fear from becoming too large and domineering, although it’s a very tricky balance to conserve.

    It’s better to use positive motivators that we find meaningful as long-term incentives to exhibit certain behaviors since that’s not going to increase our tenseness all that much.

    Not to mention that our instinct is to avoid, or ignore, situations that distill anxiety and discomfort in an attempt to decrease the mental strain we experience. Even though that doesn’t resolve the issue, this phenomenon can lead to developing avoidance behavior, which causes even more problems in the end.

  2. Too stressful

    Being in constant stress for too long increases our cortisol levels. That’s normally only a part of the fight or flight response that increases our stress hormone to make us more alert and responsive to the threat at hand.

    The liability is that it’s a highly taxing state, and will wreak havoc on our body if prolonged. That’s why chronic stressors and anxiety-provoking situations such as being fearful for a long time are discouraged since they’re unhealthy for our physical and mental wellbeing.

  3. Creates negative thinking

    Illustration of a man sitting on a chair with various negative thoughts written around him.

    Being overly aware for too long can make us overly self-critical, to the point of destroying our self-worth.

    We’re also more likely to suffer from intrusive thoughts such as that something bad is going to happen, or that things will inevitably go wrong. And while that most certainly isn’t always true, being too conscious of everything might make it seem that way.

Fear motivation definition

Fear motivation means doing things out of fright of what’s going to happen if you don’t do so. In other words, we use that fear to incite us to do something, or to change our ways to prevent falling victim to the things we’re afraid of in the future.
Fear is a strong motivator because it makes us feel uneasy and anxious. As a result, we want to prevent these uncomfortable feelings by moving away from them, since we’re more driven to prevent pain rather than chasing positive emotions.

How does fear motivation theory work?

A graph showing how threat and coping appraisal happens.
The fear motivation theory is a concept from psychology that tells what motivates people to exhibit or change their actions to prevent being exposed to perceived dangers or unsafe situations.
This behavior change is regulated by two cognitive procedures:
  1. Threat appraisal

    Threat appraisal means measuring how much fear and anxiety one experiences because of the perceived intensity of the threat(s)

  2. Coping appraisal

    Coping appraisal stands for 3 separate collections of thoughts. 

    We must believe that a behavior change will reduce or eliminate the threat.

    We must conceive that we are capable of changing our actions.

    Not only that, but we must think that the associated cost of our new, changed behavior isn’t higher than not altering our actions and facing the threat as a result.

Example of using fear as motivation

For instance, if you know that you need to overcome your fear of public speaking to qualify for a promotion, your fear of missing out on that promotion has to be greater than your fear of public speaking.

While this theory is similar to fear motivation, the employee doesn’t remain in a stressful, fear-induced state forever. They overcome their fears or move past them to reach a healthier place.

Final note

Image of a white line of chalk in grass with the words “the bottom line” written in white chalk in the grass above it.

Fear is a good motivator in the short-term, yet often starts working against us when prolonged. That’s because it causes a lot of mental strain that reduces productivity as a consequence.

Still, just because it’s considered a negative emotion doesn’t mean that it doesn’t have any utility, nor that it can’t aid us to improve our situation. It can do so by stimulating us to change our circumstances in order to prevent sensing that uncomfortable feeling.