In brief: The danger of playing it safe

In brief

The danger of playing it safe

People with anxiety disorders — social phobia, panic disorder, generalized anxiety — find ways to avoid the dangers they imagine they foresee. They may repeatedly check their pulse, constantly ask for reassurance, or carry medication and a cell phone wherever they go. They often ward off anxiety this way, to their ultimate disadvantage. An experiment conducted at the University of Texas shows that having this kind of protection available prevents recovery, whether the protection is actually used or not.

Seventy-two undergraduates with claustrophobia were assigned at random to one of five groups, three of which received exposure treatment. They were told that claustrophobia results from fear of being trapped or suffocated and that the fear is perpetuated by avoidance. Then they repeatedly performed an exercise that required them to stay for 5 minutes at a time in a small chamber — 6 feet high, 2 feet wide, and less than 2 feet deep — with black walls, no lights, and a closed and covered window.

The first group was given no way out — standard exposure therapy. In the second group, subjects were told that they were expected to open the window or the door or talk to an experimenter by radio at some point. In the third group, they were told to use these safety strategies only if they must.

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