Agoraphobia, a word meaning, “fear of the marketplace” is characterized by anxiety and/or panic attacks upon leaving the house.
That’s the technical definition. Those of us who suffer from this disorder are well aware of how debilitating it is. Agoraphobia is an insidious condition that, if left untreated, can progress to the point where the sufferer is confined to one room of the house, or one bed, unable to venture beyond it.
What kind of person is susceptible to agoraphobia? The answer to that is both simple and scary. Anyone can become agoraphobic, although it tends to be more prevalent in families that have a history of depressive illnesses, and is more common in women than men.
How do you know whether you’re affected?
In its early stages, you may not even be aware of it, or recognize it for what it is. The first signs could be as innocuous; you don’t feel like going out to the mall, or to a social function for some reason you can’t put into words. You could also be unaware of its presence until you’re faced with a panic attack while engaged in an activity you ordinarily have no problems with.
Often a sufferer can head off impending agoraphobic behavior by forcing himself or herself to interact with people and to do the very things which frighten them the most. In my own case, I have had several remissions from milder forms of agoraphobia. At my best, I can convince people that I’m an extrovert, carrying on conversations with complete strangers, visiting crowded places and loving every minute of it. During one remission, I emigrated from my birth country, England, to the United States, which is where I now make my home. Unfortunately, being separated from my friends and family has also caused me to slip into severe agoraphobia.
The most difficult part of recovery is in admitting to yourself that you have a mental illness. Many people are afraid of such an admission, which brings to mind images of locked and barred psychiatric institutions full of rocking and drooling wrecks of humanity. This is sad, as it keeps them from seeking help in the early stages of the illness, when it is still relatively easy to treat.
The next difficulty is in convincing your family and friends that you have a real problem. Because there are no visible signs, no broken bones, no blood, there’s a tendency for people without knowledge of the illness to downplay or disregard it. Throughout my lifelong battle with this condition, I have received advice ranging from the impossible to the ridiculous from well-meaning friends and relatives. “You just have to pull yourself together,” is one of my favorites, along with “It’s all in your head.” Those of us who live with agoraphobia cannot just “get over it.” In fact, there is no miracle cure and no treatments that can prevent its recurrence.
How family members can help
Those with a loved one suffering from agoraphobia often act as enablers rather than encouraging the patient to get real psychiatric help. The partner may take over the grocery shopping duties, or attend the school functions, merely to prevent the loved one feeling anxious and panicky at the prospect of being outside of their safe place.
Depending upon the severity of the individual’s condition, there are important ways that people around the agoraphobic can help them. For those with mild forms of agoraphobia, who are able to leave the house but are restricted from entering certain stores or places where they have experienced panic attacks in the past, friends and loved ones can offer to accompany the person into the store which frightens them. Maybe they will only be able to remain inside for a minute or two at first, but the knowledge that they entered the store and nothing terrible happened, will give them the confidence to return at another time and spend a little longer there. It’s a gradual process of desensitization.
Those of us who suffer from a more serious case of agoraphobia, and experience panic at the mere idea of leaving the house, need expert care. Medication and psychotherapy can help to alleviate the symptoms of panic to a degree where the desensitization process can begin. Remember, people with this severity of the disorder will be extremely resistant to going for treatment, and will conjure up very imaginative excuses not to go. Relatives and friends need to take a firm stand unless they want to see their loved one living in a prison of their own making. The first step should be the family doctor, who will rule out any physical reasons for the symptoms, and probably prescribe an anti-panic agent that will help calm the individual enough to seek psychiatric help.
What we don’t need is for you to take over tasks outside the home. When you take away our reasons for leaving the house, it makes it so much easier to give in to the disorder. We need to go grocery shopping, and to school functions, etc., even if we have to leave you to check out the groceries, or stand in the back of the room at the school concert for an easy getaway.
The good news is that with medication and therapy, an agoraphobic can live a normal life. You can learn to see an outing as a pleasure and not as a torture. The key to overcoming the symptoms is to keep going out. As I mentioned previously, agoraphobia can recur, and you need to monitor yourself carefully. If you find yourself turning down invitations you would ordinarily have accepted, or starting to make up excuses as to why you can’t do the grocery shopping, you’re slipping. That’s the time to make the effort to get out of the house as much as possible, even if you have to revert back to going with your “safe person.” It’s a good idea to also instruct your family and friends as to what to look for, so they can point it out to you, even if you can’t see it yourself.
There’s no reason in the world why anyone with agoraphobia should suffer in silence. Get help. Get out there. Start living your life.
The information contained in or made available through This Site cannot replace or substitute for the services of trained professionals in the medical field. We do not recommend any treatment, drug, food or supplement. You should regularly consult a doctor in all matters relating to physical or mental health, particularly concerning any symptoms that may require diagnosis or medical attention.