First world fears and how to overcome them

First world fears are not real fears but they permeate our lives. Here’s how to identify and overcome them.

First world fears are like first world problems. They are a result of modern society. They are not a matter of life or death although they are often treated as such.

If you study sociology you’ll conclude that first world fears are a new phenomenon.

Humans of some form have been on Earth for a couple of million years. We homo sapiens have only been around for 200,000 years.

Despite our comparatively short existence we have inherited traits from our ancestors that remain with us to this day.

The ‘fight or flight response’ is one such trait we inherited from way back that is still with us.

It’s a stress response developed to help our hunter-gatherer ancestors deal with the physical threats they faced. When a lion attacked, their bodies produced cortisol and adrenaline to help them to run away or stand and fight.

A stress response isn’t designed to happen regularly and when they do they aren’t meant to last very long. In our ancestor’s case they would either run away or fight the beast. Both responses would have lasted mere minutes.

If they were in an area where attacks were common they would move to somewhere more safe. They spent the majority of their days gathering food, socialising and living a tranquil life.

In our modern world we don’t fear lions and other large animals eating us. Humans are top of the food chain and dangerous animals are confined to remote areas or killed off entirely.

Instead we have constructed a complex and multifaceted man-made world made from science, technology and culture. This world, with less immediate physical dangers, has created many new ways to trigger the fight or flight response.

It’s why more people are diagnosed with anxiety and depression than ever before. Our genetic legacy thwarts us from fully adapting to this increasingly connected world and materialistic society. We are bound by social constructs, tied to tradition and doing things “because that’s how it’s always been done.”

A first world fear is not from the natural world but from our constructed worlds. First world fears aren’t a matter of life or death though our bodies react to them as if they are.

Genuine fears are still real of course. Fear of dying, fear of loved ones dying, being ill or murdered are genuine fears to have. Unlike first world fears, genuine fears do not permeate our thoughts and dictate our lives until they occur.

Today’s world we have many first world fears and ways to make us agitated. First world fears can’t kill us but they can keep our bodies flowing with the stress hormone cortisol for longer than it should. They come in many forms and may change depending on the stage of life you’re in.

First World Fear #1. Fearing money (or lack of it)

If you’re broke and you can’t feed yourself you’ve got problems. Most people in the West do not have this issue. Their fear is more about losing what they have or not making as much as they would like.

You don’t need me to tell you that money doesn’t equal happiness. Yes we need a baseline income to put a roof over our heads, buy foods, clothing and other material items but there is a cap. Your happiness scale doesn’t rise in coherence with your bank balance.

First World Fear #2. Comparing yourself to others and not feeling good enough

People judge themselves among other people. Particularly people in their social group. Social media has only amplified this although it is not a new phenomenon. People have always signalled their status with material items and social media is an amplifier of this.

You can’t win comparing yourself to other. There’ll always be someone with more money than you or a hotter wife. You have to live your life and do what you want to do. Not what society expects of you. This could take years of removing cultural social conditioning.

First World Fear #3. Losing respect from your peer group

Humans are social creatures. Some more than others but all of us need social interaction to some extent. People want to conform to their social group. This is what psychologists call social conformity. It’s where people adopt the belief systems of the group they are in rather than develop their own.

People fear of being shunned by their social groups. They fear exclusion and lack of acceptance. They think one way but act another way. Resulting in living a life true to themselves.

First World Fear #4. Not achieving your dreams

In recent years social media memes have declared “follow your passion” and “chase your dreams”.

Most people don’t have huge life-long dreams or are passionate about a particular subject. I’m passionate about life in general, not one specific part of it.

In his book, So Good They Can’t Ignore You, Cal Newport argues that following your passions is not for everybody. He cites how Steve Jobs didn’t follow his passion for technology, rather he stumbled on it by living a full life.

If you’re 30 and you don’t have a single passion that you can turn into a living it’s likely you never will. Most people don’t. That doesn’t mean you can’t be passionate about living a full life.

First World Fear #5. Not attaining the trappings of success

A big house, shiny car, lots of foreign travel, expensive clothes, fine dining, luxury goods, the list goes on. These trappings (notice the word ‘trap’ in there) sometimes come with a price. Debt, responsibility and time to name a few.

Home ownership is something most people aspire to. The media and culture tell us if you’re not a homeowner you are lacking something in life. Most homeowners have a mortgage so the term ‘home ownership’ is false. Miss a mortgage payment and you’ll see who really owns your home.

The word mortgage is actually a combination of two Latin words. Mort and gage which mean ‘death’ and ‘pledge’. Now, I’m not saying you shouldn’t get a mortgage but what I am saying is if you don’t have one you are not incomplete. In fact you are less tied than those with all the responsibilities that come with owning a home.

Excluding travel (travel is good!) the items above are merely cogs in the hedonic treadmill. After the novelty of the shiny car has worn off you want an even shinier car. Those clothes you delighted in when you got them now have little appeal so you need to buy new ones.

The hedonic treadmill is real and I have run on it in the past.

We are modern day humans living with hunter-gatherer programming.

The environment in which we live is manufactured. Man made. Unnatural. Though our genetics are still from an era without science, technology and agriculture.

For 200,000 years humans were hunter-gatherers. Modern society is no more than a few thousand years old. When something goes wrong your body’s stress response reacts as if the lion is attacking you.

Overcoming first world fears takes work and introspection.


First off you need to know how to differentiate a real fear from a first world fear. Developing the mindset will stop your body going into fight or flight mode over things that it doesn’t need to.

Remove social conditioning

You’ve been brainwashed into believing the only way to be happy is to have all the trappings of success. The big house, shiny car and so on. To undo this you need to peel back years of social conditioning.


Prioritise what is truly important in life. If the number in your bank account is more important than the health of your body and mind you need to step back and recalibrate.

Don’t allow first world fears to rule your life. When you understand what they are and the deeper meaning of living a good life they are nothing to fear at all.


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