Fighting Fear

Confronting phobias and other fears

Fears and Fearlessness in Phobic Patients

Some otherwise frightened people can be strikingly unafraid sometimes.

In some people’s minds, a phobic person is seen as a generally frightened, passive and dependent person, someone who avoids ordinary situations and relies on others to do the ordinary tasks of life. This is not true. Phobics seem to vary in personality as much as any other group of people. There are some who do fit this stereotype. And there are some who have a generally frightened view of the world. If they have a panic disorder, they are seemingly afraid of their own feelings. But they may be also extraordinarily strong and adroit. The specific and particular fears of such people do not prevent them from being very aggressive and successful at work or at managing a large family. Perhaps this goes without saying. Some people are capable of extraordinary acts of courage, but are afraid of public speaking. We all know people who are firm and assertive at work, but who seem hesitant to stand up to their parents or contradict their wives. Some are afraid of their children. The particular fears people develop are an accident of their background and experience. Even those phobics who are generally afraid may not have always felt that way.

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I knew a young woman who ten years before, at the age of 18, had hitch-hiked throughout India by herself, certainly an act of fearlessness that most women her age would not have contemplated. When I knew her, she was severely phobic. She could not leave her apartment without holding on to her mother’s hand. Still later on, when she was better, she was engaged to be married and active socially and had started a boutique. Her fears had siappeared.

There are others who cannot drive an automobile conveniently outside a perimeter of a few miles, but can fly their own plane from state to state.  There are others who routinely do dangerous work, but are afraid of germs. There was a senior construction foreman who would not, or could not, answer the telephone. I knew a woman who was not afraid of dying. She often behaved recklessly with her health; but she was afraid of breast cancer. I thought she might be afraid of being disfigured from breast surgery, but she could not tell me exactly what she was afraid of.

Among the more extraordinary examples of paradoxical fears and fearlessness was demonstrated by a woman who came to my attention because she was frightened by social contacts. It extended to a fear of people coming to visit her in her apartment. For that reason, she lived in an apartment building that had a doorman. The doorman was instructed never to let anyone upstairs to visit her.  On one occasion, however, someone must have evaded the doorman because she heard someone knocking, pounding, it seemed to her, on her door.  She panicked. She felt she had to escape, somehow.

At this point, I should mention that this woman worked every day as a stuntsperson. Therefore, a way out occurred to her that would not have occurred to anyone else. Although she was six stories up, she opened a window and exited through it. She walked along a ledge until she was able to get to a window opening onto a nearby hallway. She came in again through that window and hurried downstairs away from the intruder to safety.  No one would have described her as fearful in any ordinary sense.

 Over the years, I have seen a number of people who were afraid of choking on food, or afraid of not being able to catch their breath, or afraid of fainting or passing out for no reason. Some of them have otherwise risen to positions of authority and respect.  In a larger sense, it is probably true that all of us, however capable and self-confident we may be, have certain irrational fears which we cannot explain even to ourselves and seem out of keeping with the person everyone else thinks us to be.(c) Fredric Neuman

Follow Dr. Neuman's blog at fredricneumanmd.com/blog

Fredric Neuman, M.D. is the Director of the Anxiety and Phobia Center at White Plains Hospital.

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