I’m sure we all know what it feels like to be afraid. Fear is one of the most unpleasant human emotions – caused by the threat of danger or harm. For most, it occurs within situations when it is deemed a sensible response. We enter into our fight or flight response.
However, for those who don’t know, agoraphobia (said like ag-ruh-phobia) means individuals experience an exaggerated and unrealistic sense of fear. It is classified as an anxiety disorder, in which an individual perceives an environment to be unsafe; having no easy way to escape. They may also feel like help will not be available to them if something were to go wrong.
When I was diagnosed last year, my psychiatrist explained to me that agoraphobia usually develops as a “complication” from a panic disorder. This means it can arise when an individual begins associating panic attacks with the place that they have occurred. As a result, the most common way that people tend to deal with this association is by avoidance.
The severity of the phobia varies between individuals, from being able to travel specific distances or to specific locations, to being housebound, or even room-bound. I also, as a sufferer, believe that your own severity can fluctuate, similar to a mood swing.
A panic attack is a sudden, overwhelming feeling of acute and disabling anxiety. It triggers physical reactions when there are no real dangers or an apparent cause. The physical reactions can include: rapid heartbeat, feeling sick, rapid breathing, chest pains, dizziness, upset stomach, choking, shaking and sweating…
Therefore, what sufferers (including me) tend to do is, organise our entire life around avoiding these situations and things which make us feel anxious. Which, let’s be honest, is pretty hard to do when it’s everything…
This phobia makes the fear feel vague enough, that you can apply it to almost anything. It controls where you go, who you see, what you think… every tiny, little detail of your life is consumed. You lose your independence.
Something which I have personally found difficult is perceptions about leaving the house. Leaving the house is something we are all expected to do, mostly with ease. Therefore, people seem to be unable to comprehend that you can have a problem with it. Some can find it difficult to empathise with those who feel like it’s impossible. Especially when on the surface you look fine, they can’t understand why you would have a problem with it. It makes it harder to speak openly about thoughts and feelings, and often can discourage individuals from wanting to seek help.
For me, my agoraphobia became apparent to me when I was in my second year of uni. I had never felt less like myself in my entire life. Here I was, at my dream university, studying the course I had worked so hard towards, surrounded by my friends, knowing that I was supposed to be having the time of my life… and what was I doing? Feeling like rubbish and having nearly daily breakdowns about leaving my new flat. Did I do the healthy thing and tell someone about it? No. What did I do for months and months? Avoided leaving the flat, at all costs, if I could.
I avoided lectures, seminars, workshops, exams, meeting friends, food shopping, doctor’s appointments, blood tests, meals out, birthdays, weddings, walks to the Common, day trips out… you name it, I avoided it. To this day, I genuinely cannot even put into words what I found about leaving the flat so stressful. I just always had this overall sense that something really bad was going to happen if I left.
On occasion when I did leave, I would start to panic, thinking that something was about to happen to my flat (my one safe space), so I would leave early, if not straight away. I tried to play it cool for a month, explaining to my friends that… “I work better at home” “I couldn’t be arsed to go to uni today” “I’ll catch them next time” “It’s easier to get food delivered” “the weathers a bit shit, I’ll stay home” “I’m getting takeaway instead” “I’ve just been too busy”… But once I did, my comfort zones at uni became even smaller. The simplest of tasks became impossible.
It was only really when I started to compare myself to my flatmates, and everyone I saw on social media, that I realised I had a real problem. They left the house with such ease. They were having fun. Nothing bad was happening to them. That’s how it was supposed to be. I have always compared myself to people and thought I was different, but this time I really was. I looked at myself, I could barely go outside to smoke sometimes without feeling panicked. Some days I would try and get to my outside gate, and that was it. I couldn’t breathe.
That’s not to say I never left, I did. I found it a lot easier if I was going somewhere with others. I even managed familiar places alone. But, I started to realise I was waiting around. A LOT. I would wait all day for someone to come home so that they could leave the flat with me. I had never felt so dependent upon other people to do things in my life. This was it, I had to do something.
I hate relying on anyone, and I had been doing it for so many months. I had been living my life through other people. I would listen to their stories about their day, being “normal” twenty-something-year-olds, feeling a sense of accomplishment. Like I had done it too. I would start doing extra things for my flatmates so that I was making some sort of difference to the outside world.
When I think about it now, I would say that I get overstimulated in crowds or places full of people. I guess that’s why I hated most of my uni campus because of it. Public transport normally wouldn’t bother me, as it was usually taking me home to my safe place. I know now that I am actually okay on my own, most of the time, I have spent so long looking after myself that I know (roughly) how to do it.
Another thing which gets me is the possibility of embarrassment. I know a lot of others will understand this, as it is a common trait of anxiety. I often get so worked up about what other people are thinking of me, especially in certain situations. I fixate, especially wondering what they are doing, the “right” way to do things. I can feel all eyes on me. I forget how to walk. I’m rehearsing my words for the next person I speak to already. I feel like they can see something in me that I can’t. They know I’m different. I feel helpless. I feel like my body is not mine. I feel like the world around me is not real.
But, there are lots of things which can help. Psychological treatments are one of them. They can offer significant improvements. Throughout my own appointments, but now on my own, I am learning:
- That it is unlikely that my fears will come true.
- How to manage stress in a healthy way.
- How to recognise and replace thoughts which cause panic.
- How to cope with my symptoms.
- That anxiety decreases over time, and my symptoms can be managed until it does.
- To understand and control my distorted view of stress-inducing situations.
- Reduce my symptoms of anxiety so I feel safer and better able to function.
As always, it is extremely useful to educate yourself about conditions, even if it is just for your loved ones. I know that they’d really appreciate it. There are lots of healthy lifestyle changes which can be made to make life easier. There are also some fab self-help techniques too.
Now I know what the problem is, I know that it is irrational to think the way I do. I can feel able to leave the house, with adequate planning and preparation. I am continuing to work on learning to relax and maintain a sense of calm. I know that anxiety levels need to drop eventually, so I have invested in some helpful books to read the night before big days.
I am increasingly attempting to face feared situations, I even got my old job back to try and feel like the old me! I know that this will help them to seem less frightening. Again, having a support network is important. Check up on your friends. Understand that things will be okay.
THINGS YOU CAN DO IF YOU ARE STRUGGLING:
1. Shift your attention. When you are in a situation which makes you feel anxious, it is important to ground yourself. Find familiar things. Engage your sense to the current situation. Know that you are safe. It will soon pass.
2. Challenge unhelpful and unrealistic thoughts. The best proof that your thoughts are irrational, is to confront them yourself. Know that there are no disastrous consequences coming. If unfortunately, they do, learn to prepare for them in the future.
3. Breathe. Breathing exercises can be really useful in anxious situations. Calm yourself. Practice alone ready for a crisis situation. It even helps to have certain techniques for non-stressful, relaxing moments; like when you need to sleep.
4. Identify your safety behaviours and start to slowly eliminate them. Think of them as a comfort blanket, sometimes they can be useful, but you cannot live a full life if you are forever in your comfort zones.
5. Exposure. There is something called “a hierarchy of fear” which therapists sometimes use to help patients work up to their phobic situations. Slowly work up to situations which cause you anxiety. It’s a good way to identify triggers and monitor your feelings at each stage.
6. When you are in an anxious situation, focus on external factors rather than yourself. Anxiety can never survive a prolonged period. Sometimes your feelings take over your better judgement, look around you. You are okay.
7. Comfort zones feel safe but you do not grow in them. You will waste your life, or a portion of it like I did, consumed by fear and miss out on being the best possible version of yourself.
This is the first time I have ever attempted to put into words what it feels like to be agoraphobic. Whilst it has been difficult to know how to explain such feelings, it’s important to voice and normalise them. It might help someone else too.
If you think this all sounds a little too familiar, then please, speak to your GP. If you feel unable to go to the doctors, it should be possible to arrange a telephone appointment so that you feel safe. There are things which can help, I promise. Whilst I wouldn’t say I’m “cured” I have definitely enhanced my life with techniques which are helping me towards that point.