Why We Suffer from Excessive Fear
Sheikh Salman al-Oadah
There are many reasons why people suffer from inordinate levels of fear. Some of these causes may be summarized as follows:
1. Genetic causes. People inherit some of their personality traits from their parents in the same way that they inherit many of their physical characteristics. Intellectual abilities and emotional tendencies can be passed on from parents to their children. If a parent is naturally high strung or emotional, the child has a higher likelihood of being so.
2. Upbringing. The family environment plays an important role in a child’s emotional development. A family that is harsh or overly stern or one that often resorts to threats can instill fear in the hearts of the children.
Family instability is also an important factor. Children who are orphaned and those who experience the divorce of their parents have a greater tendency to suffer from fear.
3. The school. Severity and harshness on the part of the school administration can turn students into people who are fearful and cowed.
This problem is aggravated when the school focuses only on the dissemination of information and ceases to be concerned with the moral and emotional development of the students. Quite often our schools are turned into information grind mills and cease to be places where children receive a share of their upbringing. They are not encouraged to participate in the learning process, to be creative, and to develop their talents. Their moral education is often neglected altogether.
4. High expectations. Parents can push too much for their children to achieve. Professors, teachers, and sheikhs do this as well. A person can have unreasonable expectations for himself. However, when these high expectations come from others, it instills fear in a person, particularly the fear of failure.
Sometimes, a child is placed in a perpetual state of suffering by the high expectations that he must live up to, especially when his parents are never satisfied with a small achievement or expect from their child things that are beyond his abilities.
5. Ridicule. When a small child or a pupil in school is met with ridicule from the people who surround him, it instills fear in his heart. The same can even be said for Islamic workers and other educated people when they meet with ridicule from society at large.
6. Unrestrained and undisciplined scaring. Children are exposed to unnecessary frights through their parents and through many other sources. Being scared in such a way can make a child frightened of everything around him, even the sound of wind, thunder, or rain. Unbalanced and uninformed fears such as these are often acquired by children through the stories and fables that they are told.
Television shows that the children watch, even children’s cartoons, can play a major role in instilling in our children these unreasonable fears. Many of these shows expose the children to images of horrible, ferocious creatures. Watching such things can instill within the minds of children – and even some adults – irrational and unnatural fears.
7. Disabilities. If a person suffers from a disability or deficiency – whether physical, mental, or in his appearance – that causes him to compete less effectively with others, it can cause him to suffer from fear.
8. Feelings of guilt and shame. Many people fall into a state of fear on account of past mistakes that they have made and that they feel have tainted them. Sometimes, what affects a person in this way took place against that person’s free will as the result of force or coercion. Nevertheless, the person continues to be haunted by the experience, feels unclean, and feels that because of it there is a deficiency in his moral character.
Sometimes a person only imagines the things that he is ashamed of and they burden him painfully though they have never really taken place.
Studies conducted in Britain and the United States have revealed that many adolescents in those countries suffer from serious fears, sometimes bordering on mental illness, on account of masturbation. This is in spite of their living in such permissive societies.
It may be possible that, in some cases, those adolescents fear what they perceive as the medical or psychological ramifications of their habit. However, in Muslim societies, these fears are compounded by the Islamic legal implications of masturbation and certain verdicts that have been issued about it by Islamic scholars.
Ironically, a young person might lie, disrespect his parents, or slander others and not feel the least discomfort or regret about doing so. However, when it comes to masturbation, he is wracked with guilt, though the sin is nowhere near as serious as the other misdeeds he so nonchalantly perpetrates on a daily basis.
A final reason. A person can have an inflated opinion of himself. He may feel that he is exceptional or better than others. If a person – whether a child or an adult – feels that he is better looking than others or that he is stronger, better placed socially, or more well endowed in his abilities, he may feel fear on account of it rather than have confidence.
In summary, we can say that fear is a natural human emotion. It is a necessary part of a person’s natural and healthy psychological makeup. Indeed, some degree of fear is something required from us by Islamic Law. However, the fear that is needed is a balanced fear that is moderate in degree, neither excessively strong nor weak. This balanced fear brings about two important results:
1. Knowledge which gives a person a correct and proper perspective on things.
2. Good works whereby a person deals with other people and things in a correct and proper manner.
A moderate degree of fear inspires us to acquire useful knowledge and to do what is right. In turn, beneficial knowledge and righteous deeds are the ingredients for success in the worldly life and in the Hereafter.
To the extent that the emotion of fear become imbalanced – whether too much or too little – it brings about a deficiency in the acquisition of knowledge and the performance of good deeds.