Let’s take a brief look at the physiology of fear and anxiety. Imagine that you have travelled back millions of years in time. You are sitting beside a camp fire in a cave enjoying your meal. Your body’s muscles are relaxed and you feel happy.
Suddenly, in your peripheral vision you notice an animal nearby. As soon as you turn your head, a large and ferocious-looking sabre toothed tiger charges toward you!
Immediately your body goes through a series of drastic changes caused by the “fight or flight” response – Mother Nature’s way of protecting you from danger.
This innate and automatic response to fear and anxiety is characterized by a chain reaction originating from the brain which orders the secretion of adrenaline. This hormone brings about the following changes in your body: Read more
In Greek mythology, the Minotaur was a monstrous combination of man and bull. The vicious creature resided in a twisting maze or labyrinthos, a gigantic palace comprised of clusters of rooms and corridors so complex and convoluted that having entered, no one was able to escape. The ghastly Minotaur was offered a regular sacrifice of youth and maidens to satisfy his cannibalistic hunger. Once thrown in, the victims would get lost, be unable to find the exit and eventually meet their demise.
According to the story, this ruthless carnage went on until Theseus, an Athenian hero, decides to put an end to the Minotaur’s reign of terror and death. Theseus enters the labyrinth as yet another sacrificial victim. But he has an astute stratagem and a set of skills to win against his enemy. He ties a magic ball of thread to the door as he enters and unwinds it as he goes deeper into the labyrinth. Theseus enters the labyrinth complex and beats the Minotaur to death with his bare hands. He then follows the thread back and is thus able to find his way out.
You may feel like one of the victims of the terrible Minotaur. You haven’t been “eaten alive” yet because maybe you have managed to escape “death” by avoiding being devoured by the man-eating demon. Maybe you ran faster than the monster and managed to escape. Or you avoided those passages of the maze in which you would encounter him. You might have also asked for help from other victims to keep you company. However, even if you succeeded in evading the monster, you still remain inside the labyrinth! You are still captive. You begin every day worrying about when or where exactly this monster would appear. You may have nightmares and be unable to sleep as you dread being caught by this demon.
A group of scientists undertook a research study on fear in England during the Second World War. During nightly air bombardments in London, when entire neighbourhoods were being destroyed, researchers checked people in the streets for anxiety levels. They also tested people living in the rural areas where there was no bombing. Surprisingly, the rural people showed higher anxiety levels than the city dwellers. Why? The city people accepted the bombings as a regular event and adjusted their lives to cope with them. Meanwhile, the rural people worriedabout the possibility of being bombed, and the unpredictability of such thing caused them more fear and anxiety.
Many studies show that people are mostly afraid of familiar objects or everyday situations. For examples, there are more people suffering from phobias of spiders and birds than those suffering from fear of snakes. There are more people afraid of dying in an airplane crash than by bombing.
Since humans have an unlimited imagination, we can have phobias of practically anything. I recall a gentleman who was afraid of looking at the angles of buildings. In order to avoid a panic attack, he would draw a circle on a notepad and stare at it until he calmed down. A woman was afraid of vomiting or seeing others vomit. She was always on guard to avoid all those foods that she was certain that could cause her vomit. Another young woman had to liquefy everything to drink because was afraid of swallowing solid foods. She feared that a piece of solid food would get stuck in her throat and that she would die of asphyxiated.
Some fears and phobias may appear “strange” or “weird” to others. However, they are very much real to those who suffer them. Anything could cause an anxiety reaction and, therefore, limit people’s lives.
When I was 15 I moved from Iran to Italy. I was living with one of my brothers in Rome, but felt anxious. A year later, my anxiety level rose to the point that I couldn’t concentrate on my studies and suffered from a host of symptoms: I was excessively self-conscious, worried about others judging me and avoided social situations. Whenever I could, I would stay quiet or try to disappear into the background.
In 1979 when I was suffering these symptoms, there wasn’t so any information about anxiety. Most family and friends interpret these symptoms as shyness or insecurity. Needless to say, this interpretation didn’t help me since I thought that something was seriously wrong with me as a person. I didn’t know that I was suffering from anxiety.
Among my symptoms of anxiety was a throbbing headache. I tried many treatments to alleviate the pain. I began with a doctor and then a specialist, an acupuncturist and finally a psychologist. I took prescription drugs for pain, anxiety and depression. Only the psychologist got past the symptoms that caused the pain. After all, I was far from family; I was worried because the Islamic Revolution had erupted in my native land. The revolution meant persecution for my family and other Iranian Baha’is. Soon I began to receive news of Baha’is being imprisoned, tortured and executed for their beliefs.
After telling all this to the psychologist, he diagnosed my condition as “stress”. I became interested in personal growth and psychology. After many years of personal struggle and studying psychology at the University of Western Ontario and University of Waterloo, I learned many coping skills which served as foundation for my first book, “Stress: An Owner’s Manual”.
However, now, 34 years later, I know that it was neither stress nor shyness. My extreme feeling of self-consciousness in everyday social situations was nothing but anxiety or what psychiatrists call it “social anxiety”. Since then I helped people in Canada, Sweden, Czech Republic and Spain overcome their problems.
While I was living in Europe, I did three post graduate studies, furthering my knowledge of psychology. Gradually, after many years of private practice, and after seeing numerous cases of anxiety, phobias and obsessions, I became known as a specialist for complicated cases.
The course of human knowledge and sciences has been marked by opposition to new methods. The following examples illustrate scientists’ resistance to accept innovative approaches.
For centuries scientists believed that blood was created in the liver and moved around inside the body and disappeared in the extremities. In 1628, William Harvey, a British physician and anatomist, announced his discovery of the circulation of the blood. He described, in meticulous detail and backed by solid arguments, the circulation and properties of blood. Harvey’s shocking announcement was that the heart was a pump that pushed around the blood through veins and arteries. The British censor forbade the publication of his scientific treaties on blood circulation. He was ridiculed by other scientists for his preposterous theories. According to Harvey, he actually made his discovery 12 years before sharing it publicly!
It took him such a long time because he was afraid. In his own words:“…some chide and calumniated me and laid to me as a crime that I had dared to depart from the precepts and opinions of all anatomists…I not only fear injury to myself from the envy of a few, but I tremble lest I have mankind at large for my enemies…”
In 1816 a French physician called, René Laennec, invented the stethoscope. His invention became a major tool in diagnosis. However, many physicians opposed this idea arguing that there was nothing worth listening to. Read more