From Panic Attacks to Agoraphobia: How It Happens, How to Cope
A person is leaving their house. Out of the blue, they get cut off by the most horrifying beast they’ve ever seen. It attacks them mercilessly. They barely make it back into their home.
After they recover and feel better, the person peeks out of their front door. Everything is clear. Once again, they leave their house. But before they get far, there it is again! And once more they get pummeled.
The person rushes back into their home – their safe place – and locks the door. They peer out the window. Nothing is out there lurking in the bushes yet they cannot stop their overwhelming need to withdraw.
They’re terrified! – And suddenly, this person is facing the overwhelming fear that if they leave the safety of their house, they surely will be struck again.
If you suffer from agoraphobia you can probably identify with this illustration when it comes to your fears, because your panic attacks may be like that terrifying beast who is threatening and stalking you every day of your life. It’s for that reason that you’ve come to fear panic attacks so much that you avoid any and all places in which you previously experienced them.
In the most severe cases, often only one “safe” place seems to remain – your home.
How does it come this far? And how can you cope with this fear of fears?
How It Happens
The road to agoraphobia begins with panic attacks. Panic attacks trick you into thinking there is a danger. They are such scary experiences that you naturally want to protect yourself from them, just like the person in the illustration sought out protection from the attacking beast. It’s a normal reaction. However, it’s exactly that effort to protect yourself that leads to agoraphobia. How so?
The problem is, when you suffer from panic disorder you often become the victim of a false belief, namely that there is some sort of “safe” place that could actually protect you from more panic attacks. In an effort to stay within that imagined safety zone, you begin limiting your activities and avoid any situation that makes you feel trapped.
But instead of avoiding what you fear, you become more and more afraid over time – falling into the trap of agoraphobia.
How To Cope
The fact is, agoraphobia will continue keeping you trapped as long as you believe there is a “safe zone” that will help you avoid panic attacks. Employing safety behaviors only keeps your fear alive, instead of helping you to overcome it.
The road to coping with and recovering from agoraphobia actually starts with learning how to correctly manage panic attacks. The way out is not trying to get rid of your fear before you enter the phobic situation, the way out is to learn to handle your fear while you’re exposed to the phobic situation. This approach is called exposure treatment and is based on cognitive behavioral methods.
First, you have to learn how to handle a panic attack by calming yourself. Plus, you must also be willing to eliminate your safety behaviors – including carrying safety objects, using distractions, avoiding certain drinks and foods, sitting near exits, or having a companion by your side all the time.
Second, you must determine which places or situations you fear, making a list of them from the least to the most scary. Then, you practice managing your panic in those situations and places you have on your list. You begin with the easiest ones and, as you learn to handle those, you practice your skills in more and more challenging situations.
Finally, one step at a time, you begin reclaiming those areas of your life that you once gave up to panic and fear – and face the beast that’s stalking you.