Living with Agoraphobia
Agoraphobia is a condition in which a person avoids going to any number of ordinary places because they fear they will have a panic attack. Seemingly harmless public places such as supermarkets, churches, schools, shopping malls, or public transportation all hold the threat of causing a panic attack for an agoraphobic. The fear arises because there is not always an easy place to exit quickly from these locations should a panic attack occur. Basically, an agoraphobic bears the constant burden of panic.
The word goes back to the ancient Greeks, where agoraphobia meant, “fear of the marketplace.” These days, that definition has expanded to include any location that is outside of someone’s “safe” zone. A safe zone is not necessarily limited just to one’s house, as many believe — that is an extreme case — but even places where someone used to enjoy visiting can become off limits because agoraphobics carry with them the experiences of shame, frustration, and the anticipatory worry of having a panic attack.
A safe zone can be a specific geographic distance from one’s home, or can be specific locations where an agoraphobic feels protected from having a panic attack. Therefore, an agoraphobic reasons that if he stays within his safe zone, he will be able to prevent having a panic attack and the sometimes terrifying thoughts and fears that accompany it.
Agoraphobia treatment closely follows the treatment for panic disorders. A panic attack is an acute case of anxiety. It usually only lasts about 10 minutes or so, but the person experiencing it can feel like they are dying during that short time. A panic disorder is when a person consistently experiences panic attacks, with no control over them. Methods used to help someone overcome both agoraphobia and panic attacks are two-fold:
- First, one must learn how to respond to panic attacks in ways that calm them down, such as slowing their breathing, or practicing anticipating an activity or thought that might accelerate into a panic attack.
- Second, as one progresses and gets better at those skills, an agoraphobic can begin practicing them in more and more “challenging” locations, until they have regained all the territory that they previously gave up to panic. This kind of treatment is usually called exposure treatment, and it’s considered the most effective treatment available for panic and agoraphobia.
Reeling in Agoraphobia
But how does a case of anxiety balloon into an agoraphobic state, where a brief panic attack can lead to a situation where a person is paralyzed and simply cannot travel to everyday locations? Much of it has to do with a person’s lack of self-esteem and self-worth.
Panic attacks occur when a person has internalized so many negative emotions related to his life that he has conditioned himself to become used to having a poor sense of self-esteem. When this is challenged and he is not ready to stand up to it, panic ensues.
Managing panic requires building up a sense that he is, in fact, worthwhile and deserves to be where ever he is, through the practice of replacing negative emotions with positive ones. In doing this, he reduces his anxieties, which reduces the possibility of having a panic attack. When he is secure enough to believe that he can control his panic attacks, the person may then be able to attack his agoraphobia by slowly venturing out of his safe zone. The more times he does this successfully, the more the agoraphobia will lessen or even possibly disappear.