ABU DHABI // It is a tradition that spans centuries, a cornerstone of the lives of Gulf men and women alike. But, according to psychiatrists, the majlis could also be the setting for traumatic experiences that lead to a lifetime of anxiety. "Social phobia is one of the most common anxiety disorders prevalent in the Gulf region," said Dr Medhat el Sabbahy, a consultant psychiatrist and head of the psychiatric rehabilitation unit at Sheikh Khalifa Medical City (SKMC).
"It may be due to the way people are raised to adhere to social obligations, as well as the cultural tradition of the majlis society here." Being "criticised or singled out or humiliated in some way" at a majlis - for a young person in front of dozens of older and intimidating relatives and family friends - could cause social phobia to "kick in", Dr el Sabbahy said in a lecture. "It is normal to have patients who can sit in a majlis with 15 to 20 people that they know and be completely normal, but then experience an irrational fear at the thought of being near four or five strangers."
The condition manifests itself as an unreasonable and excessive fear of being judged, watched or criticised by others, as well as extreme self-consciousness to a point where it interferes with normal life and social interaction. As well as leading sufferers to avoid all forms of social interaction, it can cause sweating, dry mouth, increased heart rate, stomach pain, trembling and breathing difficulties.
Dr Mufeed Raoof, a psychiatrist at SKMC, said parenting style could also contribute to fears of social interaction. "Arabs like to be authoritarian in their dealings with children," he said. "Children are told to be quiet around adults, and certainly not taught to speak up or have self-confidence or express themselves well among their elders." This, he said, could lead to personality and anxiety disorders, as could what he called the intrusive nature of Arab society.