In general, I try to balance my publications between personal insight and information. When I can’t quite find the words I tend to shamelessly borrow from others, with due credit of course, and psychology is no exception. Dean Koontz once wrote,
“There is a fine line between a weary recluse and a fearful hermit. Finer still, is the line between hermit and bitter misanthrope.”
So, what is agoraphobia and how does it tie in to all this talk of shut-in isolation?
Agoraphobia is the extreme or irrational fear of being in open or public spaces or – more specifically – an abnormal fear of becoming helpless in a situation from which escape may be difficult or embarrassing. This is characterized by the physical sensation of panic which includes panic attacks associated with Panic Disorder, or anticipatory anxiety of which avoidance is the result.
To simplify, an individual who is diagnosed with Panic Disorder will often develop Agoraphobia as a secondary diagnosis due to the intense fear and trauma associated with past panic attacks in which convictions of harm or death appear imminent to the individual. The mere idea of this occurring outside the comfort of one’s home – or at a location where escape may not seem obvious – urges the individual to stay indoors. Thus begins a behavioral change that is characterized by severe anxiety, fed by fear, and reinforced by avoidance.
What sets Agoraphobia apart from the aforementioned weary recluse or bitter misanthrope is desire. Having lived with this disorder myself for 14 of my 29 years, I can say it is highly complex, relative, and variable among those who have it. Yet, almost unanimously, this population reports a fervent desire to live the lives they were once able to free from the unimaginative loneliness that follows:
To be able to travel with their children.
To chase dreams and self-development.
To do the grocery shopping.
To go on a date with their spouse.
To make a phone call.
To drive a car.
Agoraphobia can be sudden or progressive, entirely depleting of one’s quality of life, and often sends relationships into ruin. The sufferer can find relief with the help of a professional in proper exposure therapy, medication management, or cognitive behavioral practices to retrain their mind on the matter of fear. It is a taxing tear-filled battle with setbacks a-plenty, while some never recover at all.
In my case, every outing is different. Sometimes I go out and about within my comfort zone. Sometimes I go outside my comfort zone for a limited period of time. Sometimes I stay home for days on end. I often experience severe anxiety in the evenings about any obligations I may have the following day. Sometimes, the mere thought of driving alone can send me into a paranoid catastrophizing thought-pattern complete with crying spells, trouble breathing, and disruptive disturbing throughts. I shake, become nauseous, and dissociative. If I have an interaction with someone in public, my mind assumes they will hurt or embarrass me in some way. Naturally, the impulse is to flee this inflamed misrepresentation of complex traumatic events in my past.
As you can see I can rationalize these things, but it doesn’t stop a survivor’s brain from going off-balance. I have learned to practice self-care, coping skills, exit strategies, symptom management, proactivity and the power of “no”. I used to socialize, travel, attend concerts, museums, and school functions regularly. Now I rely on others frequently, and on the hard days – I still fall into extended patterns of avoidance.
If I were on my own I would be a quickly contented cat-lady. Instead, I often grieve for the active partner my boyfriend deserves, the socially engaging mother my son needs, or my deep longing for nature. My self worth often suffers due to the goals I can’t reach from within the confinement of my home, fluctuating timelines, and functional capacity. For now, it’s something I continue to chip away at.
If you or someone you love suffers from this disorder, please give them compassion. Ask them what they need from you to cope differently. Offer support without enabling. Their fear is founded and help is available, but it’s all for naught if you fail to acknowledge the calamity that has disproportionately swallowed them whole.
**If you’re a mental health survivor or mental health provider and want to tell your story – please email me at firstname.lastname@example.org!**
For more excellent insight and entertainment through a collaborative approach to all things mental health, including a guest post from yours truly, visit the Blunt Therapy Blog by Randy Withers, LPC! For additional perspectives on suicide prevention from master level mental health providers visit, 20 Professional Therapists Share Their Thoughts on Suicide!
In collaboration with Luis Posso, an Outreach Specialist from DrugRehab.com, Deskraven is now offering guides on depression and suicide prevention to its readers. For more information on understanding the perils of addiction visit, Substance Abuse and Suicide: A Guide to Understanding the Connection and Reducing Risk! In addition, for a comprehensive depression resource guide from their sister project at Columbus Recovery Center visit, Dealing with Depression!