Agoraphobia and Your Life

I have suffered with agoraphobia for many years and it has cost me much in life. It started at a young age and went unnoticed for a long time. It first started with an avoidance of public places that were loud such as a movie theater or a concert hall. Then it took a strangle hold on my life and within a few years I was unable to leave the house aside from getting the newspaper at the end of the driveway, and even that took a lot out of me to do so. I admittedly have not gotten fully over it and I doubt I will for many years, I have made great strides in dealing with my agoraphobia and anxiety. I went from being unable to go to high school, which I really enjoyed otherwise, to giving a ten-minute graduation speech!

Most people think that agoraphobia is a fear of being out in public or in a public situation like talking to someone. While that happens to be one of the things that an agoraphobic person deals with, the main thing is a fear of having an anxiety attack in a public place.

The idea of having a panic attack in public, an embarrassing and scary thing indeed, may cause some people to avoid being out in public all together to avoid such a situation. I am not a doctor or have any more information then the average person, but I do have my experiences I hope will help others who suffer from agoraphobia learn to deal with it. Learning what it’s like to have agoraphobia for those who do not have a problem with it can lead to an easier time for those of us who do. There is nothing worse then the public not understanding what is going through our minds and attempting to help us and causing us more harm then good. My guide shall be split into two parts since agoraphobia impacts both friends/family and the person with it.

Dealing with agoraphobia for the sufferer:

I can only go by what I have had to deal with and what I went through to get help regarding my agoraphobia, so please understand that some cases are better or worse then I had been. My first agoraphobic experience happened at a Santana concert with my mother and her current boyfriend (eventually husband) at the age of fifteen. Even before entering the concert area, the sound of the band and the announcements were already starting to scare me.

I could feel every beat and sound throughout my body, my heart seemed to beat with the drum work. This scared me a great deal! When we arrived at our seats I had already become very anxious and wanted to leave. My mother tried to quiet me down but I had already reached the point where only being far away would calm me down. My heart raced and I began to sweat even though it had been very cold out. Breathing faster and faster to try to catch my breath, I quickly found that no matter how much I breathed in, it felt like I had acquired no air! So I quickly began to hyperventilate and had to be removed from the concert area. As soon as the sounds could not be felt, I began to feel better. I then associated loudness to this feeling and started to avoid any type of similar situation. My downward spiral into agoraphobia had started.

Within a month I started to have anxiety attacks and had gone to the hospital where it was explained as such. Soon after whenever I became lightheaded or have a shortness of breath regardless of the reason, I would go into an attack. Going up stairs would bring one on! Knowing the world is ripe with stairs and other such things that would cause the heart to beat faster, I quickly began to close myself off from the world. School became a very fearful place to me and I soon used whatever excuse I could think of to get out of it or not go for the day, it didn’t matter to me.

Knowing that other people, friends included, could be loud and were often so, I would decline offers to go any place where people would be. While I never really thought about the fear of having a panic attack in public, I often wonder if I did deep down. The safest place to me was at home. It was familiar and I could go to my room to avoid loud noises if need be. My room would soon be my residence for the next few years, as I would rarely go outside of it. Anxiety attacks scared me! The lack of control and feeling of having a heart attack scared me into hiding away from the world.

Since I was at this point not going to school or seeing any friends, a lot of people began to bother and poke and prod me into being the social person I had used to be. For some people, this may actually be a helpful thing. Knowing others care about you and want to help is a nice thing to have. But for me, it seemed more likely that they wanted me outside for their own uses! Demanding me to go outside and for school, it only made me angrier and more secluded. I would be forced into the car and sent to school each day where I would have an attack and end up in the nurse’s office and be taken home again. Repeat that for nearly an entire school year!

What finally got me to start to get out more into the world began with a change in the way I viewed life and its dangers. With my agoraphobia, I simply said “I cannot do this or that.” and that would be it. I would not give things a chance or take any steps on my own. A friend of mine would keep coming over and bothering me through out the day, pounding on the front door of my house through my yelling for her to go away.

Soon I gave up and opened the door to tell her to go away in her face, she stormed into the house! Afraid, I started to have an anxiety attack. She stayed by me throughout it, and kept encouraging me to get over it. Turned out she suffered this same thing when she was a child and was here to help me. After getting over the attack, she explained that she was still next to me and yet I was not having another one.

Over the next month or so, she would take me farther outside and stay by me throughout it. At first I really hated her for it, what did she know. But soon I had gone to the store with her, with some trouble by the way, but it showed me that I could do things, I was not doomed to live in my room forever. She introduced me to new people, and knew my limitations. She would keep pushing me further through the fear inch by inch. Everyone around me began to encourage me for having done so much more then I had in a long time, but often had too high expectations of me and would again and again put me in a situation I was not ready to handle. A few times I did head in the wrong direction and back towards the fear, but my friend encouraged me onward. Within two years she had taken me from my room to a new school for people like myself with social anxiety issues. The classes were smaller and you were allowed to move around a lot more freely then a normal high school. We also were assigned a therapist to discus our problems with and would be a link to the schoolwork and the school itself if things needed to be changed.

In this new school, I found others with similar problems as I had. I gained more friends, we were able to understand each other’s problems easier and would so understand why we would do the things we do. Quickly I discovered that others had far worse situations then I had. While this may seem mean, seeing others worse off gave me comfort. It allowed me to accept my problems for what they were, and that improvement is possible! After two years I became more social and open then I ever had been!

On the way home from school, you had to take the bus. The school had been about an hour’s drive away and so bus service would be the only option for me since my father had work. I had to sit in a small mini-van with seven other students along with the driver! That was the biggest test I had so far, and it would have to be dealt with. After the first week of having to do this, the fear of being crammed in there with others soon passed. I had no choice in the matter. Either I could have an attack in the van and delay getting home, or go through it and get home as fast as possible. Plus I had no alternative way to get home, so it would either be living at the school or the bus.

One of the best pieces of advice for someone who suffers from agoraphobia is that you can do normal things like everyone else. Sure you may not be able to at first, but with practice and small steps you will be able to. The second best thing I can tell you is to have good friends. Explain to them (online or in a letter if you have to) about what happens to you and for them to try to understand it. Know that friendships will be tested when you are really agoraphobic, because most people do not understand what it’s like to feel this way. To most people, being out in public is as natural as eating! Take baby steps. Never give up, as long as you desire to get through this you will be able to.

Dealing with agoraphobia for the family/friend/co-worker/teacher:

Agoraphobia is not a choice. We do not suffer from this for our own enjoyment or to spite you. While we may be afraid of you, understand that we need your help as well. We may yell and scream and put up a big fight, but we are just afraid. If you have never had an anxiety attack, let me try and describe one for you. It is different for everyone so I am only going with what I feel when I have one.

The heart beats really fast and hard, you can usually feel your heart pounding throughout your body. A cold sweat tends to form, and you begin to breathe faster and harder. For me, no matter how many breaths of air I took, it felt like my lungs had nothing in them at all. Breathing fast often leads to hyperventilation and you become light-headed and possibly pass out. It feels like a heart attack or something very serious. Often the idea of dying is felt while having an attack, but dying has only happened on a very rare few occasions so I’ve heard and they were due to heart problems from their older age. It is extremely scary because there really isn’t much you can do about the situation. If you can leave what is causing it, do so but most of the time an attack is caused by something we do not understand.

Now here is a few things you as a person without agoraphobia can do to help those that do. The first thing you can do is to understand their limitations. Don’t expect the person to go to a concert or a baseball game. Do not take rejection for interaction as a sign of dislike or mistrust, our fear is irrational but feels real to us. If you see someone having an anxiety attack, please try and help him or her but do not go overboard. Ask the person if they want some help, if they say no try not to make a big deal about it.

The more pressure and anxiety they feel, the worse the attack and the longer it may be around for. Making a scene is by far the worst thing you can do for them, believe me. Ask them if they have ever had a panic attack before, and if they haven’t try and get some local police or other help because to that person it may feel like a heart attack and that they are dying. For the person who is new to an attack, its best to get them medical help is possible. They think they may be having a heart attack or dying, so by having medical help it may make them feel safer in their care. If they have had previous anxiety attacks, ask if there is anything you can do for them. Offer water if you can. The more a person thinks about the attack, the longer it will stay for the most part. Think of it as hiccups. Once you stop thinking about them, they are gone! So try and offer other things to help them get their minds off an attack, such as a funny story or some local news (happy of course).

If you have a friend or child with agoraphobia, they might need you to help them. If they are unwilling to go to your house or out with you somewhere, offer to be with them where they are most comfortable. Try to get them to take baby steps away from that safe place, but keep encouraging them when they have go past their limit. Do not treat them as a child, saying what a good job they are doing for leaving the house or this and that. That makes them feel little in your eyes, a baby or something. If things get too much for them, let them have a break but do not let them sink back into the fear if possible. The idea is to get them to feel comfortable with a situation before moving on towards the next step. Here is a very helpful hint.

Ask them to make a list from one to ten of the scariest situations for them. One should be perhaps having a few friends over. Something small, and hopefully easy. Ten should be perhaps a concert or a movie at the local theater. Now that the list has been made, ease them into the first level. Be with them. Ask them if they are comfortable. If they are fine with it, move on to the next higher level. If they are not comfortable, let them have a break so they can feel normal again and if possible bring them back to the situation that that caused the feeling of lack of comfort. Repeat as needed until they are comfy with the current situation, then let them go on to the next difficult stage and so on and so forth. You may need more then just ten stages; the difficulty may be too high too fast to be able to be done so perhaps one to twenty may be needed. Anyway, do not try to go from one to ten in a single day, let it take weeks or even months. The idea is to let them gradually get over their fear, but have the safety and comfort of being able to back out if things are too much. Baby steps.

Professional help may be a nice idea to help the person. I have gone to a few different therapists and psychologists during my difficult times. Do not force it of course. I remember hiding in the bathroom for my first appointment, and even had a session through the bathroom door! Medication may help, but I do not believe that they are needed forever.

Summary:

Agoraphobia is not permanent! It can be overcome with practice and encouragement. Understand your limitations but remember that just because you are not comfortable in say a restaurant does not mean you always will. Do not give up! Anxiety attacks are not lethal, and an ever increasing number of people in the world take anti-anxiety pills. It is common to have at least one anxiety attack in a your lifetime, so know your not alone. Just because you may feel your heart beat faster or your lightheaded does not mean an anxiety attack is a sure thing. The thought that your heart is beating faster often times brings on an anxiety attack! Logic is your friend. If you jog, you breathe harder and your heart beats a lot faster. That does not mean that if you jog you will get an anxiety attack. I went from not leaving my room to going to college with lots of people, loud ones at that. Things will be ok.

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