May is Mental Health Awareness Month so it’s a great opportunity to talk about mental health, help debunk myths, and erase stigmas. One thing that I am passionate about is raising awareness about agoraphobia.
Agoraphobia is an anxiety disorder based on the fear of being in places or situations where escape might be difficult. Extreme discomfort/panic/anxiety of being away from a place that feels safe. Or distress around leaving your home by yourself. It’s estimated that 1.7% of the U.S. population will experience agoraphobia at some point in their lives and with things like the pandemic and community violence – that number is probably on the rise.
Here’s what I want people to know about agoraphobia:
Agoraphobia is not always the inability to leave your house at all (although it definitely can be!). Some people with agoraphobia can go to places they’ve become comfortable/familiar with like a job, favorite restaurant, store, or friend’s house. Some people with agoraphobia have a “safe” person to accompany them and the stress/anxiety is tolerable.
For a very long time, I thought agoraphobia was social anxiety. But an easy way to distinguish it is that social anxiety is anxiety over the people in the space (what they might think or say about you) while agoraphobia is more about the space itself – although they often go hand-in-hand so it can be hard to distinguish between them.
Agoraphobia also encompasses fear/anxiety over public transportation, crowded spaces, standing in line, and even open spaces like parking lots.
My Tips for Agoraphobia
Widen Your Circle of Comfort: I live in a decent-sized city so there were a lot of things within walking distance which helped. In the beginning, I would walk around the block with my camera and take pictures of nature-y things. That helped because it gave me a focus. Then I started having lunch in a park that was a 10-minute walk away. I started walking to a donut shop every week that was also about 10 minutes away in a different direction. I slowly started to see those paths as comfortable and safe. Then in a different direction, there was a library and then a movie theater, and a little grocery store.
It was like this 1-2 mile radius of safety that started with my home in the center.
Create A Safe Space Around Yourself: It can help to bring things that create a comfortable atmosphere around you. Bring lots of things to keep you occupied. Snacks, a journal, books, headphones, your favorite scent – those things can help lessen the anxiety. Listening to audiobooks and podcasts can also help!
Take Baby Steps: Progress happens slowly and that’s okay! It took a few years for going out to become something that was routine but when I had about 10 places that felt comfortable it became much easier to add more and then let it radiate out and then it became something that I didn’t think about anymore.
Other things you should consider!
It’s essential to work with a mental health professional. From experience, I know that can cause anxiety too! Whether it’s the therapy itself or how to afford it, it can be stressful. But a therapist can help you work through your barriers and help you create goals via exposure therapy.
Breathing exercises are always a good coping skill to have when it comes to anxiety. By focusing on your breath and slowing down your respiratory rate, you can decrease feelings of anxiety and panic.
Learn as many coping skills as you can. When it comes to coping skills it really is trying to throw everything but the kitchen sink at your anxiety and then see what sticks.
I’ve come such a long way that agoraphobia barely affects my life anymore. I still get nervous when I go somewhere new. I still scope the place out online probably 65% of the time so that it *feels* familiar. I’ve been able to travel away from home for days at a time (even to a different state which was a HUGE accomplishment).
I consider myself in recovery but it took a lot of work to get there!
Don’t give up and please keep working at it!