Saturday, August 3, 2002
M A I N   F E A T U R E

Fear not fear
Gitanjali Sharma

Fear not fear

IT stalks its enemy at any time of the day. It is ruthless and brutal as it cold-bloodedly targets humanity. It does not even spare children, the aged, the disabled and the mentally challenged. In fact, it is more merciless towards the weak-hearted and the cowardly. It can cause a lot of pain, mar destinies and take lives. It is called fear.

All of us who have been in its vice-like grip will know of its traumatic hold on us, but what are we doing about it? Aren’t we fooling ourselves into thinking that we are leading normal lives? Aren’t we so consumed by humiliation that we are even afraid to acknowledge the presence of fear? Perhaps, this is the main reason why this debilitating emotion gets away scot-free even after robbing us of our peace and health. In order to protect ourselves and launch a counter-attack against this destroyer, we must first get acquainted with its characteristics, strengths and weaknesses, motives, strategy that it adopts and the harm it is capable of inflicting.


What is fear?

None can define fear better than those who experience it. It is well nigh impossible to imagine how a child feels when he gets up in the middle of the night in his dark room. He squeezes his eyes shut and silently cries terrified of the darkness while his parents, unaware of his trauma, sleep next door.

None can fathom how petrified a person suffering from the fear of public speaking — incidentally, one of the most commonly felt fears — can get when he has to even as much as introduce himself at a gathering. Even as his heart beat increases, palms go wet with sweat, the mouth dries up and the mind goes blank, a part of him fervently searches for excuses to evade the situation.

Still again, few can realise the panic that grips a young woman, who fears the safety of her widowed mother, after the murder of an old couple in her parent’s neighbourhood. She breaks into a cold sweat if her mother doesn’t take her telephone call by the third ring. Not only is each wakeful moment spent worrying, but these feelings of foreboding also haunt her in sleep, turning her life into a nightmare.

Psychologists define fear as an emotional response to some impending danger, which surrounds us with feelings of apprehension, dread, worry, anxiety, alarm or panic. The traits of fear are similar to those of a bully, and that is what eventually can be exploited and turned into its Achilles’ heel. Fear continues to chase us till we stop and confront it. It intimidates us, making us cower in its presence. It gives us a complex, causing us to feel like a loser. It makes us feel unhappy, miserable, unworthy and inadequate, and there’s nothing we would like to do more than to shut ourselves in our cocoon. But the minute we decide to confront this much-feared bully squarely in the face, it will just gape at us dumbfounded, step back and slink away, usually never to strike back again.

What gives rise to fear?

Dr (Col) Rajinder Singh, a Chandigarh-based psychiatrist, says most of our fears are unfounded, have no basis and are not reality-oriented. Attending an interview, changing a job, travelling alone become much-feared tasks only because we perceive them to be so in our minds.

With most of our fears being self-generated, Franklin D. Roosevelt rightly pointed out, "The only thing we have to fear is fear itself." It has been noted by psychologists that very young children are extremely confident. The superconfidence that a child is born with is summed up most aptly in the words of world-renowned psychologist Jean Piaget: "A child feels when he gets up the sun rises." Again a two-year-old who is holding his father’s arm and crossing the road is most likely to be under the impression that it is his parent who is in need of support.

It is, therefore, ironic that most fears get implanted in human beings during childhood. Psychologists maintain that both very exacting and overly indulgent parenting can raise a fearful child who refuses to venture out into the world. If parents remain greatly anxious about reactions of other people and avoid social situations then the child learns the lesson that there is something to be embarrassed of and that the world is extremely threatening.

A child who has suffered traumatic moments, while lying awake in the dark while his parents were sleeping in the next room, can grow up to have a morbid dread for darkness in his later years. Girls, who are strictly made to conform to certain standards of socially acceptable behaviour, grow up to be more inhibited and fearful of ridicule and humiliation.

Besides bitter past experiences and environmental factors being potent reasons for fear to take root or be implanted in the mind, there can be biological reasons for its presence. It may have its roots in the genes. An anxiety-prone father may transfer this trait to his progeny, not only by his own predisposition but also by demonstrative effect.

The dominant fear

Fear of incapability leads the large pack of fears hounding human beings. This fear of failure keeps us from improving our lives, aiming high, dreaming big and rising above mediocrity. It stops us from experimenting, taking risks, making choices, setting deadlines, changing for the better, exploring new avenues and even making new friends. This lack of confidence can restrain us from undertaking activities that we may keenly wish to pursue.

A person fearing failure closes his options. He may refuse to take the risk of moving out of town to try for a more lucrative job or fail to take a shot at happiness and express his love to somebody for fear of rejection or he may continue to remain in a bad relationship out of fear of "what next?" This inability to realise our desires further lowers our self-esteem and increases the gap between the level of achievement and level of aspiration, leading to frustration. It may also result in a host of other fears like fear of ridicule and fear of parental disapproval.

A destructive force

It has been studied that many pilots lose their precious lives because instead of bailing themselves out of a crashing plane they choose to cling to their seemingly secure seats. Completely paralysed by fear, they prefer the comfort zone of the cockpit to moving away from impending death, which more often than not is mere seconds away.

Fear in such a life-threatening situation can prove fatal. Though most of us, fortunately, may never encounter such a life-consuming fear but day in and day out we are swamped by all kinds of fears and anxieties, which can play havoc with our lives if we allow them to. According to a survey done in the USA, every one in five Americans suffers from chronic anxiety. It is hard to forget how millions were immobilised in this powerful country after the September 11 strikes. This panic-causing emotion also fanned the anthrax scare that hit right after.

Fear, when not reined in, can deplete us emotionally, physically and mentally. It gets destructive when it enslaves us, governs us, begins to affect our performance and stunts our very existence, to put it mildly. There is a lot of truth in the phrase ‘worrying ourselves sick!’ Besides causing headaches, nausea, diarrhoea, chest pain, heart failure, nervous breakdown and a number of psychosomatic disorders, it can literally even scare us to death!

Emotions, particularly those of fear and anger, can cause mild illnesses, serious illnesses and even death, writes Dr Eric Berne in A Layman’s Guide to Psychiatry and Psychoanalysis. He goes on to state that even a hundred years before there was any scientific psychiatry, the famous English physician John Hunter knew that the heart could be affected by strong emotions. When a heart attack nearly killed this physician, he said upon his recovery: "My life is in the hands of any rascal who chooses to annoy and tease me!" Berne writes: "He (the physician) was unable to keep his temper, however, and one day he became angry and dropped dead. Though his death was cause by his emotions, it was not imaginary. His temper brought on a very real blood clot in the wall of his heart."

The redeeming feature

It is the degree of fear perceived that lends fear to this emotion and makes it frightening. You have heard of people getting paralysed by it, but sometimes it is this very emotion which propels others to spring to action and meet deadlines.

This much-feared emotion, like a habit good or bad, can be put to constructive or destructive use. It can both facilitate and debilitate, evoke both positive and negative reactions. It is possible that a young man plagued by the fear of public speaking, one of the most common fears, may react to this distressing emotion in one of these two ways: either he will strive to look for opportunities to overcome his extreme shyness or else he will evade all such gatherings which require him to speak and may end up becoming something of a recluse. Similarly, a businessman, who has suffered a major debacle, may either become too incapacitated to try out a new venture or else the fear of failure may goad him to attack a new business with even more vigour.

Fear can also motivate us to better ourselves. In fact, most of us grow up fighting all kinds of fears and thus broaden our horizons. There are times when it makes us adopt a cautious approach and stops us from behaving in a foolish and careless manner. Many teenagers, mercifully, do not get tempted by drugs and gambling because their fear of getting hooked to these habits is stronger. Some may not race their bikes as much as they would like to for fear of an accident or death.

Combating fear

More often than not when we are consumed by fear, we spend all our energies camouflaging the presence of this dreaded invader in our lives. Instead of finding ways to combat fear, we look for ways to coexist. This escapist technique adopted by us warps our personality as each day we helplessly draw back and the monster gains ground.

The bullying fear can be checked even if one courageous step is taken to fight it. Here are some methods to move past fear.

Acknowledge it: Ask yourself: Am I scared of something? Is it ruling my thoughts? Controlling my life? Realise the fact that you can’t change what you don’t acknowledge. Make a list of all the fears and anxieties bogging you down. This simple exercise by itself may help you realise that certain fears have been exaggerated by the mind.

Fear forward: While you are drawing the above list, also jot down: "What will happen if worst comes to worst or if my worst fears come true?’ "How will I handle that situation?" To help patients move from fear to hope, psychotherapists sometimes use this technique called "fear forward." Once you brace yourself for the worst eventuality, fear will lose its power to intimidate you. A person who is afraid of losing his job will not only be ready to face the axe any time but will also get ready with alternatives and solutions.

Question your fear: Question the validity of your fears. Ask yourself: "How many times has similar panic led to nothing?"

Confront it: There is no better way of tackling fear than taking it by its horns. Challenge it. Take every opportunity you get to establish your superiority over it. It will not be long before you realise how unfounded your fears were.

Psychologists use the explosion technique wherein the victim is exposed straightaway to the object of fear. This technique is not recommended for children. Deep scars can be left on a child who is suddenly pushed into a swimming pool to make him get rid of his fear of water.

Practise courage: Just as practise makes one perfect, by constantly exercising courage, we can build our confidence.

Desensitising: Here two stimuli—the anxiety-provoking one and the anxiety-reducing one — are placed together. For instance, say Dr Rajinder Singh, if a child fears dogs then the anxiety-provoking stimulus (in this case the dog) is kept at a distance while a chocolate may be placed in the child’s hand. Gradually — it may take even many weeks — the dog is brought closer till it is sitting on the child’s lap.

Seek out more people: Find others more fearful than you and help them. Nelson Mandela once said, "It is not the dark we fear the most, but our light. When we allow our light to shine we automatically give others permission do the same."

Move out of your comfort zone: When you move out of your comfort zone, you will realise that this zone will expand to include other abilities which hitherto you had considered impossible.

Channel the responses: Robert Gerzon, a practising psychotherapist and author of Finding Serenity in the Age of Anxiety, believes toxic or negative anxiety is the root of dysfunctional behaviour, addictions, abuse, and self-sabotage.

"Our evolutionary task is to become conscious of what biological mechanisms anxiety triggers and mediate them. Become conscious of what has been unconscious up until now." The key to this, he says, is awareness.

"Identify your own Voice of the Anxious Chatterbox, the voice at the back of your head when you’re awake, in your dreams during sleep. Then practice ‘THE Way to Think.’ T-Truth. Tell yourself the truth — the highest truth, not just a replay of old tapes. H-Happy. Take care of yourself emotionally. Once you tell yourself the truth, why not put yourself in the best light? E-Effective. Inner-talk should help you get the job done, not waste your time in speculation, criticism and negativity.

"Feeling anxious may indicate we need to change something. The best antidote to anxiety is to learn to love life unconditionally."

Have faith: The need to combat fear has been felt down the ages. All religions strongly denounce it, for fear not only impedes mental, physical and emotional growth but also puts brakes on the spiritual progress of man.

"Surrender not to unmanliness. It is unbecoming of thee. O’ scorcher of foes, forsake this small weak-heartedness and arise."

These famous lines of Lord Krishna from the Bhagavadgita, exhorting Arjuna to face the battle of life bravely say it all.

Spiritual teachers like Sri Ramakrishna said, "Shyness, contempt, fear—these three remaining, one cannot be perfect", while Swami Vivekananda maintained, "One word that comes out like a bombshell from the Upanishads is fearlessness."

Parmahansa Yogananda, author of the famous Autobiography of a Yogi, offered this solution for fear: "Fear comes from the heart. If ever you feel overcome by dread of some illness or accident, you should inhale and exhale deeply, slowly, and rhythmically several times, relaxing with each exhalation. This helps the circulation to become normal. If your heart is truly quiet, you cannot feel fear at all."

Christianity, which lays immense stress on hope, believes that man is made in the image of God. And exercising his will, he can truly overcome all his shortcomings, including fear.

The fear of moving on

WHEN ghazal singers Chitra and Jagjit Singh lost their young son in a road accident, they were completely broken. Jagjit slowly came out of his grief and took refuge in singing but Chitra took years to come to terms with her loss.

The fear to face reality, come to grips with your grief or loss does not allow you to move on and lead a normal life. Also, a very bitter past experience or shock can lift your faith from God, humanity and even yourself. When you begin to stop trusting yourself, you lose the confidence in your ability to place trust in life and all it has to offer. And this stops you from moving on in life. It stops you from leaving the unpleasant or sad event behind and progressing with your life. It stops you from learning from your setbacks and realising all that you are capable of doing.

Undoubtedly certain harrowing, tragic or shocking happenings like molestation, death of a loved one, betrayal of a business partner, or infidelity by a spouse can leave deep scars in the mind and may leave you totally shattered. You may begin to spend more and more time reliving the distressing incident. Passing through this phase, it is tempting to take the easy way out and resort to pitying yourself rather than gaining hold of yourself and beginning to live for the moment. The more you attach yourself to the past, the further you go away from reality and lose the ability to make the right decisions for yourself.

A victim of the fear of moving on, who has been molested during childhood and who has not been able erase her pain even after years, may develop dread, hatred and contempt for all men, to the extent that she may not even want to get married. A businessman, who has lost everything as a result of a partner’s betrayal, may go into a depression and lose the confidence to start life all over again. The confidence of such people can be rebuilt with emotional support from the family, friends and institutions. They also require guidance, for feelings of doubt and low self-esteem come in the way of their perceiving situations objectively. Certain cases may even need the help of a psychologist or a psychiatrist, who can make them realise that in life you have to tread through certain paths to be what you are.

MANY psychologists distinguish between fear, which they see as a reaction to a real threat, and anxiety, which may feel a lot like fear but can occur without a specific cause. Generally speaking, if the source is vague, it’s called anxiety; if it is specific, it is fear. For example, a child may fear a certain bully, and have anxiety about growing strong and tall.

Except for irrational phobias, fears may function as protective devices. From experience, from parents and other mentors, from watching, listening and reading, we may learn to fear certain things or events, and we either avoid them or become especially alert and careful if we must face them.

Are children born with fears or do they learn them?

Psychologists differ on the question of whether or not certain apparently unconscious and involuntary responses of infants should be called fears. At birth or soon after, a baby has startle reflexes and avoidance reactions, such as recoiling from pain, jerking at a loud noise or gasping at the sensation of falling. These actions may be unconscious to begin with, but they connect to conscious fears as the infant matures.

The first so-called social fears usually appear by the ninth or the tenth month, when babies become aware of themselves as individuals separate from their mothers. Most children experience a predictable progression of fears, each arising and fading with an age-related timetable. Before their first birthday, children typically develop a fear of strangers. This is followed by separation anxiety (fear of losing the mother or even of letting her out of sight) and often by fear of the bath.

During the second and third years, a toddler’s fears may focus on doctors, sudden noises, such as thunder or fireworks, strange animals, and unfamiliar children. Along with these may come the dread of darkness. As the child’s imagination expands, so does the capacity to anticipate and fantasize fearful objects and events. Between ages three and four, children may frighten themselves with imaginary creatures. And they may become unreasonably afraid of the risk of bodily harm, an exaggerated, anticipatory fear that is a by-product of their real experiences with painful falls, bee stings, bruises, or the like.

Most youngsters grow out of their childhood fears, or at least put them in some kind of reasonable perspective that makes them less disturbing. If any fears seem to be unusually long lasting, professional help may be useful

What is the difference between fear and phobia?

The difference between a phobia and a sensible fear is the panic that grips a phobic person. A phobia is like a fear gone wild, robbing a person of reason. For example, a respect for the dangers of falling off a cliff reflects a healthy sense of reality; but a panicky preoccupation with heights can prevent a person from working in a tall building or vacationing in the mountains. One of the cruelest aspects of a phobia is that it can dominate a person’s thoughts even when the person knows the fear is irrational.