This is agoraphobia
Agoraphobia in my interpretation is a very intense fear of getting into situations you cannot get out of, or cannot get out of without embarrassing yourself, or a fear of situations where you are unable to get help in case you need it.
Here’s what I mean:
- flights: you cannot get out
- giving a speech: you cannot get out without embarrassing yourself
- roadtrip in the middle of the desert: you are unable to get help in case you need it
When I say ‘very intense fear’, I really mean very intense fear, but like hyper-super-intense fear. Like when you were little walking in the streets and a dog almost your size started barking at you but you had to proceed with walking in the dog’s direction. It’s a terrible feeling and if there’s a chance, as an adult you would probably not risk too much and decide for the safe way: ‘fuck the dog, there are other ways to get home’. And next time you might not take the route with the dog, and not the day after or two days after. That street now equals to the danger the barking dog meant for you.
This is something that often happens with agoraphobic people. They encounter a situation which means the street with the wild dog for them. It can be anything, like sitting in a car or having to go to school or sitting in the kitchen, really anything. One’s mind for some reasons starts connecting this terrifying feeling with that situation, which means they’ll start avoiding that situation, just like most people would with the street of the dog. Now one problem is the fear this person has to experience every time they encounter this situation. The next problem is that once they enter the situation, most probably their body will rebel against this huge adrenaline-dose and they will end up having a panic attack, which is a horrible thing to experience and so this will make them start avoiding the situation at all costs. This can get so far ahead that one day they are not able to leave their homes, because they are afraid of so many situations that they won’t have any more safe places, and they’ll stick to the only one they have. And whenever they are obliged to leave, they’ll feel like that little child confronting the barking dog of their size.
At the end of the day agoraphobia is not a fear of situations or people or actions, it’s the fear of having a panic attack, and this fear itself may be the source of the panic attack.
This might sound weird to people who have never experienced anything like this. Why don’t you just stop being scared of everything and then you won’t have panic attacks? Well, sure, but first think about this: if you told that child not to be scared of the dog, would you really expect the child to stop being scared? Fear is not something you say should stop and then it will, even if you know there’s no reason to feel like that. Actually people with agoraphobia very often are aware that their fears are absurd and lack any kind of reason. And still, once we face that situation, panic becomes more powerful than any kind of reason.
The good thing though is that there are ways to make it better. Here you’ll find the ways I found the most helpful to fight my agoraphobia. There are no two equal cases though, so whatever helps me, might have a totally different effect on you. Read the tips and take with you only the ones you judge could be helpful for you.
How to cope with agoraphobia
So, a good solution could be to always keep a weapon against panic with you. This can also prevent you from feeling that you are unable to get help, because you actually keep help by your side.
Prepare a nice-looking little purse with your pills and carry it with yourself wherever you go.
This of course does not mean that whenever you feel uncomfortable you should immediately just take a pill because it’s right by your side. Actually, the goal would be to open your little purse as rarely as possible, but having it always by your side will give you a sense of safety, like ‘common, no reason to avoid this situation, the worst that can happen is that I start panicking and if it gets really terrible, I can always just take a pill and all will be fine’. Very often the consequence of this kind of self-talk will be to stop avoiding the situation, and preferably not to take the pill, either. Knowing that you have help against panic will make you less scared of panic, and as a consequence you might not even panic.
Again, I would never encourage anyone to live on pills, but in this case (obviously not in an excessive way) it might be better to enter the feared situation with the help of the pill rather than getting used to avoiding it.
Avoidance is actually the worst you could do, but more about that later. So instead of hitting the road leading to a home-based lifestyle full of avoidance, how about trying to take it as easy as possible. If taking a pill is helpful in order to be able to go through with whatever you need to do but are too scared, then don’t be too strict with yourself. Taking a pill to help you enter a situation does not mean that you are week. At the beginning of your therapy it can be beneficial, but only if eventually you actually decide to enter the situation and then either way it went, you panicked or not, you can be proud of yourself. You tried, and next time instead of staying home you’ll think: ‘I did it last time and it might have been shitty, but I’m still alive, let’s try again.
Even if you are scared, it is important that you slowly get comfortable with the idea that those fears will have to be faced sooner or later. However, based on the reason why you entered the feared situation, there is a big difference between the effects of exposure. In my opinion exposure is a useful way of therapy only in case you do it voluntarily, you learn from it and either way it went, you cherish yourself for going through with it.
An example would be if you have the chance to go to work by subway (where you know you will panic) and on foot, and on some days you decide to choose the subway just in order to get better at managing panic. You challenge yourself and you win, with or without having panicked. And if you win once, you will win next time as well, so you will be less scared to enter the situation.
The important here is that you don’t just suffer through a situation because you are forced to, but you actually choose to challenge yourself. There is an outcome of having faced your fear (with or without panic), and either way you can be proud of yourself. As a result, the feeling associated with the situation will slowly transform from the scared-suffering-panicking kind of package into the challenge-difficulty-victory kind of feeling package, which let’s admit, is a much more appealing one.
Instead of being the victim who has to suffer through the feared situation again and again, take the lead and decide to change your role in the process. Take control over the situation by deciding to challenge yourself, be strong, be brave and not let yourself being held back in passing to the next step of your journey.
Even though it seems very straight-forward, exposure is a difficult technique to carry out wisely, which is why I strongly recommend to consult with a therapist first.
This might sound a bit stupid, but I think that this has been my most powerful help during my last flight. And the best part about this technique is that you feel that you have support by your side, but it’s actually you helping yourself.
It usually sounds something like this:
‘So here you are, Kata, packing and probably freaking out and blaming yourself for organizing this stupid trip instead of having your quiet and comfortable moments at home. Now in case you are questioning if this process makes any sense at all, remember that it definitely does! You chose to go through with this because you wanted to challenge yourself and prove that you can do this even with agoraphobia. Also, you know that some of the best moments of your life happened during traveling. So get yourself together, focus, finish packing and believe me you will have so much fun you can’t even imagine just now. You’ll be just fine, you always have been.’
Something like this for all the steps of the journey when you suspect you’d have some bad moments: buying the ticket, packing, leaving the flat, getting on the first bus or in the first car, arriving to the airport, waiting at the airport, boarding, etc.
To me these voice messages have helped a lot, so give it a try and let me know how you feel about your recordings.
If every morning you drink a coffee to start the day, changing it to tea just because ‘later you might freak out and having caffeine in your system wouldn’t help’ might not be a good way to prepare.
If there are routines in your life that you like, don’t change them just because you think they would affect your fear or your reaction. In fact, these moments of fear are exactly the ones when routines might be helpful, they make you feel comfortable and give you the feeling that everything’s usual, there’s no need to panic.
This is actually one of my favorite exercises related to agoraphobia, because it gives me the perspective of an outsider, makes me less involved and lets me learn about the way I manage panic. So by doing this several times, you will be able to observe patterns and will have the chance to work on them.
Also, while entering the situation, remembering your fear-log will enable you to think about your situation again as an outsider and instead of feeling helpless and panicking, this can help you to feel more in control and think more like this: ‘OK, according to the pattern the next step is panic, but it’s fine, because I know that the step after that will be the moment of relief and I can enter the situation anyway, just like every other time.’ As a result, panic may not even appear, or if it does, it’s just part of a normal schedule and it’s not scary anymore.
I can’t promise that all of these techniques will work for everyone. However, what I do know is that for me these little tricks together turned out to be helpful, and this package lead me to be able to have the lifestyle I’m having now, where fear is no longer the center of my thoughts.
In case some of the techniques are new to you, they might be worth a try, hopefully they’ll spare some bad moments for you. However, only stick to them if you feel comfortable about them. Either way, I’d be happy to learn how you’re doing with or without using these techniques, so feel free to get in touch if you’d like to share something with just me or with all the readers, I’ll appreciate it.
P.S.: Agoraphobia is a bitch, but it gets way less scary once you learn how to deal with it. So go outside, meet people, travel, take planes and do whatever you’re dreaming of doing… and remember, the worst that can happen is that you panic, but panic will always be just panic…