After two decades of working with people suffering from phobias and other expressions of disabling fear, I still remember clearly two clients whom I met more than 15 years ago--a man and a woman whose "cure" for their crippling anxieties was worse than their fears themselves.
The first was Dorothy, a 72-year-old married woman with two grown children. She belonged to a self-help group to whom I taught cognitive and behavioral techniques for overcoming phobias, anxiety disorders and obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD). Dorothy was afraid of being alone, afraid of the world outside her house and above all afraid of fear itself--afraid of feeling trapped and experiencing a panic attack.
She had had her first panic attack in response to events that would terrify anybody. When she was in her thirties, not long after she had given birth to her second child, her husband had come home in a drunken rage and brutally beaten her, breaking her jaw. Even after divorce and a restraining order, this man repeatedly broke into her house without warning and raped and beat her.
Dorothy eventually moved to another state, but her panic attacks continued. By the time she turned 40, she had remarried and fashioned a life whose guiding principle was to avoid danger, risk and fear at all costs. She had stopped driving for fear of panicking in a traffic jam and hitting another car while attempting to escape. She rarely went to restaurants or movies, and when she did, she sat close…