Have you ever felt fear or anxiety in crowded spaces, long queues, enclosed spaces such as elevators? When you think of it, it is just a normal anxious feeling, right? For some like me, it is a daily feeling so we try our best to avoid it and think about something else, countdown seconds and minutes, try to focus on our breathing and just be patient, trying our best not to panic or draw attention to ourselves or end up in humiliation. But the thing is – it’s not just a feeling, it’s a condition known as Agoraphobia.
Agoraphobia is an unnatural fear of being in situations or places that we believe we can’t escape from, we find the situation or place unsafe and perceive that we are trapped, which leads to panic and anxiety. It is a severe form of the panic disorder (also some refer to as anxiety disorder) where we have fear of open public spaces or closed spaces. Strong symptoms of agoraphobia include being afraid to leave home or our comfort zone, waiting in line or crowded spaces, enclosed spaces such as elevators, movie theatres and stores, open spaces such as parking lots, concerts or malls and using services such as public transportations in high-speed trains, plane or buses. The condition develops when our fear transforms into an anxiety as we believe we can’t escape from the current place. Even though agoraphobia is a severe or close form of panic disorder, it is not entirely the same – because some people have agoraphobia in addition to panic disorder – which worsens the situation by hundred percent.
Due to these symptoms and causes people having agoraphobia become anti-social, not because they hate being around people but because they don’t want to humiliate themselves by explaining such a condition that many of us don’t understand and believe it just a casual feeling and we are over-reacting. This also leads to depression, stress disorders and many other forms of mental illness, because we perceive our condition cannot be helped and decides to shut down our passion and desires. We feel bound to stay in our reserved boundary and become dependent on others, help us run errands and do chores we feel we wouldn’t be able to successfully do.
Nonetheless, we should give our self a chance to help and grow out of this condition. With the technological and medical enhancements, there are many strategies in place that can help us deal with this situation. However, I would suggest starting with self-help strategies:
Step 1 – Identify your symptoms
The most important step is to identify the symptoms. If you have repetitive feelings of fear or anxiety by going to a certain place or in a certain situation, try to remember it – or better write it down, you will know from your heart when it’s not normal. Try to keep note of when and where it first happened, what was the environment like, how often you keep getting the same feelings. This will help you establish a trend such as open space, closed space, too crowded, too few people and the time of the day.
Step 2 – Learn what is anxiety and panic disorder
Once you identified your symptoms and triggers, help yourself by doing research on anxiety or panic disorders – which is common in the adult population. But just because you want answers, try not to believe that you feel every panic or anxiety disorder symptom you read. You can likely tick out the symptoms you have by evaluating the triggers and its causes. Once you have a better understanding of what panic and anxiety is, then try to know more about your individual symptoms and triggers – this is where you will come across the term agoraphobia.
Step 3 – Learn about Agoraphobia
This is where you do more self-education on what agoraphobia is, its causes and symptoms. When you are almost certain that you have these triggers leading to this condition, try your best to study how others have coped with the situation – but know that for every individual it’s a different course of action, what works for someone else might not work for you.
Step 4 – Develop self-strategies
The first step is to share your feelings and condition with your family and close friends – people who know you and understand your situation. They will be the biggest rock when you move on with other strategies. Then, try to go to places that you fear with someone you trust, someone who is willing to pull you out of the place or situation when you want. By this, your mind will be at ease and more willing to pass through that feeling. Do not try to avoid the feeling – when you start feeling anxious or scared tell the person next to you, let them help you. The next strategy is learning to manage your anxiety – for different people different tools work. Start by trying to calm your breathing, close your eyes (sometimes you feel dizzy and lightheaded) and have long inhale and exhales – start counting if it helps (like yoga, count to 10 inhaling and 10 exhaling). For some listening to relaxing music helps – try this if you haven’t with high or low volume and see if it works for you. Next, try to rationalize with yourself, what are you afraid of “having a panic attack” “embarrassing yourself” “not escaping from the place”, once you identify what you are fearful of then think of a solution “this elevator will stop at next 3rd or 4th floor, but your floor is 10th floor which will take 5 more minutes” and when you see an escape point try to get out and breathe again – or if you can convince yourself, try to stay till you get to your floor. By doing this, you are taking the control of your feelings and making your brain understand the course of action. You are helping your brain to stop over-estimating the situation and taking control of your fears and feelings.
It is important to know that we can’t cure the condition by just one try, we have to keep doing it over and over again, facing our fears and practising our strategies. If our initial strategies do not work, we should revise the strategies and find out what works for us best and keep doing it – following our toolkit till we feel comfortable. Once we see improvements we should celebrate and reward ourselves and not assume it is completely over – because it’s a life struggle till we cure it completely – we might even not realise when it happens.