Sunday,23 September, 2018
Current issue | Issue 1232, (5 - 11 February 2015)
Sunday,23 September, 2018
Issue 1232, (5 - 11 February 2015)

Ahram Weekly

Confronting our fears

Fears and phobias can be controlled if they are properly understood and treated, says Mai Samih

Al-Ahram Weekly

Fear is an aspect of most people’s lives, but it is the type of fear that determines if a person will live a happy or a miserable life. According to writer Youssef Abou Haggag, author of How to Overcome Fear (2007), there are two types of fear: natural fear, in which a person feels by instinct a sense of fear in dangerous situations that may cause him harm or damage, and intense fear that can lead to significant problems in life.

Natural fear is beneficial as it causes individuals to avoid dangerous situations and even helps predict future dangers so they are ready to face them. For example, a student who fears he or she will fail an exam studies hard to avoid such an outcome, and so fear drives the student on to pass the exam. Research has shown that this type of moderate fear is essential for people to succeed in life.

If the fear is intense, however, this can lead to psychological disturbances. A person may suffer from chronic fears or phobias. If a student suffers from this second type of fear, he may not be able to concentrate on his studies and could fail his exams.

Ali Suleiman, professor of psychology at Cairo University, defines the problem of phobias as “a severe type of fear that starts with the ordinary fear that a human being is created with, called ‘natural fear’ or ‘positive fear’, which is simply the fear that aids in self-preservation. This kind of fear is essential, and if someone does not have it he risks damaging himself or putting himself in dangerous situations.”

Said Suleiman, “At the beginning of life, a child does not distinguish between objects or creatures that are harmful to him and those that are beneficial to him, with the result that he might play with a dog or a poisonous snake without understanding that the latter in particular could harm him.”

For this reason, it is essential that the child develop a protective, natural sense of fear. A phobia, on the other hand, is a type of chronic fear that a person may feel without any logical reason. It can be a feeling of horror in regards to a subject, situation, creature, or person or place that is usually not a real threat,according to Abou Haggag . Someone suffering from a phobia reacts with fear to something that is normally not a threat to him.

Suleiman believes that it is the way that children are raised that determines whether they will suffer from phobias in the future. “Fear begins when a child acquires information from the age of six months onwards,” he said.

“The child receives this information in the form of conditional correlations, meaning that if a child is playing with a dog while someone makes a loud noise he tends to be afraid of dogs as a result. The idea is that children tie one stimulus with another, and this can be used as a non-verbal method of teaching children.”

 A child also forms fears via language, in the form of advice and warnings, if, for example, his mother tells him that if you do this, the dog will bite you, or if you are naughty, I will send you to a dark room where there is a ghost. What is occurring here is that parents implant fears in their children by scaring them with conditional stimuli and then at a later stage reinforce these fears through verbal warnings.

This forms a sort of an attitudinal habit that can be benign as it helps to protect the child from danger. It is only when such fears become extreme, such as when a person fears bacteria to the extent that he does not engage in social interaction in order to minimise contact with others, that the fears become a problem or a phobia.

According to Suleiman, such fears may originate with a child’s mother or father reprimanding him in an extreme fashion when he was young. Instead of being dirty, for example, he becomes obsessed with cleanliness, Suleiman said, perhaps even suffering from an illness in which he is unable to touch anything out of a fear that someone else had touched it before him.

“There is also a phobia of school which begins with a mother spoiling her child to the extent that he never leaves her side. Later, that child may have difficulty going to school because he is attached to his mother and may start making up stories or pretending to be ill so that he does not have to go to school in what is called ‘separation anxiety’.

“In this case, it is the mother who consolidates this fear in the first place, and it is a fear that can obviously be harmful to the individual on the social level,” Suleiman adds.

 Abou Haggag lists many types of phobia, including of fear of heights, open areas, pain, punishment, loneliness, animals, growing old and death, and many more. There is also a phobia of relationships, like the phobia of love and marriage in which a person subjected to an unhappy experience in a relationship then avoids them. An individual may develop a phobia of dogs caused by being bitten by a dog during childhood.

Suleiman also referred to the phobia of insects and of small places, which may be triggered by parents’ behaviour. There is also the phobia of darkness and crowded places, believed to be caused by parents telling children that they could get lost and not be able to get home again.

The phobia of heights may be caused by the belief of parents that if their child goes up to a high floor he will fall. This means that these phobias are often acquired behaviour due to mistakes made by parents who are overly protective of their children or are too strict with them.

Phobias can develop into a state of panic, according to Suleiman. Some medical students suffering from “colour shock,” in which they become afraid of the sight of blood, fail to become doctors for this reason. The phobia of the sea, perhaps related to being told as a child that if he swims in the sea the waves will swallow him up, could develop into a fear of water more generally, with a child refusing to take a bath. There is also the phobia of planes, seen in people who have a problem not being on solid ground.

What these things have in common is that they start with a small problem during childhood that intensifies into a larger one later in life. Another common cause of phobias is “modelling,” when a child sees a person he admires do something and then imitates him.

If parents are afraid of cockroaches, for example, their children may well imitate them. Phobias can also develop from a shock a person was subjected to while the object of his phobia was present.

“There are two types of symptom of a phobia,” says Suleiman. “The first is when a person shows disgust, or justifies being afraid by saying something like ‘I do not want to go to the party as there are people there who do not like me.’ In this case the truth is likely to be that this person actually has a social phobia: he understands that he is afraid but does not want to make people feel he is so he justifies it rationally.

“The second type of symptom is physical, like heart palpitations, breathing difficulties, shivering or sweating when a person sees the subject of his fear. He may also be unable to think and lose self-control. In extreme cases, this type of fear may lead to a kind of paralysis or physical shock.”

Other symptoms of phobia, according to Abou Haggag, can be cold sweats, dizziness, feeling upset or insecure, feeling inferior or shunning ordinary behaviour like mingling with people in the case of someone who has a social phobia.

A phobia can become a form of “ideology,” as whenever a person is subjected to the subject of his fear he will act subconsciously with barely any will involved. According to Suleiman, this is called a “compulsion reaction,” in other words when a person feels compelled to act without thinking.

According to Abou Haggag, a person in this situation may be aware that his fear is illogical, but he will still feel afraid and this fear controls his behaviour. Scientists believe that this is the starting point for cases of neurosis and psychosis.

 To avoid encouraging phobias in their children parents should not show themselves to be afraid in front of them, Suleiman says. In most cases, if a parent does not fear the subject of a phobia in front of a child then the child will not fear it either.

Phobias are acquired, not inherited. Children can watch horror movies without being scared, but if a grown-up is around and shows fear they are also scared because he has taught them to be so.

There have been many attempts to cure phobias, including the psychoanalytic technique of “free association,” in which a person is asked to talk until the situation that caused his phobia is discovered. As a result, he becomes conscious of the source of his fear and so ends his phobia.

However, this technique can take up a lot of time and it does not work for everyone. For this reason, cognitive therapy such as correcting wrong beliefs by replacing wrong beliefs with right ones is now used in many cases. A person who is afraid of heights, for example, can be gradually encouraged to go up to high places until he is used to it and understands that his earlier fear of them was mistaken.

 The same goes for a student who fears exams. He can be sent to gradual moderation sessions until an exam situation becomes an ordinary one for him, ridding him of his phobia. Phobias can also be cured by meditation, so that the mind is busy with things that are unrelated to them, according to Abou Haggag.

To overcome a phobia a person must understand the meaning of it, including its causes, its manifestations and its consequences, he says. He must confront himself with the fact that he suffers from a phobia rather than a case of natural fear. He should overcome the phobia through self-confidence and self-belief.

Above all, a person who suffers from phobias should aim to enjoy life and relax. He should make use of his free time by spending it usefully. He should try as much as possible to mingle with people and, if necessary, consult a doctor and talk to him about his problems.

“He should ask himself the question of whether there is really anything to fear,” states Abou Haggag. “This may be enough to make his fears pass naturally.”

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