Misunderstandings About Agoraphobia

There are a lot of shitty things about being agoraphobic. It’s essentially imprisoning yourself, a type of solitary confinement imposed by your own mind. It’s also really boring repeatedly explaining and trying to get people to understand what it actually is.

I’ve seen therapists who were supposed to help me overcome this condition, who, prior to me explaining, didn’t understand what agoraphobia was. Many friends and family members I’ve explained it to will nod and ‘hmmm’ in agreement and understanding, only to invite me an hour later to some event that means travelling and being in a completely impossible situation for an agoraphobic.

It’s frustrating but I get that it’s probably near impossible to fully understand panic disorder and agoraphobia unless you’ve experienced it. There’s many things in life that are this way; falling in love, for example, or experiencing psychedelics. I don’t think they’re things that can be grasped or fully understood without first hand experience.

The thing with phobias, as like many human behaviours, is they are completely irrational. Fear of spiders is an example many can relate to, an especially irrational fear for those in countries where the spiders are completely harmless. It’s completely bonkers to experience the degree of fear that many will when they see a harmless little spider crawl out from a dark corner of the room. People have been known to move home because of spider infestations.

Now imagine the trigger of your phobia is the outside world, or certain everyday life occurrences, such as going to the supermarket. Imagine knowing there’s nothing to fear, but still your body and mind betray you and act as though you are in life threatening danger.

To get an idea of the power of a phobia, Jordan Peterson, clinical psychologist, explains a story of a man with a phobia of needles. This mans phobia was so strong, that he would frequently undergo dental procedures awake with no anesthetic.

One way I think is powerful in demonstrating the power of agoraphobia and put it into perspective is by supposing I was offered an insane amount of money to travel to a foreign country by plane. Let’s say a billion dollars. I couldn’t do it. At this stage of my recovery I can truthfully say that the terror of experiencing the panic is more powerful than the joy of having a billion dollars.

When the panic hits, you feel as you are being dangled off the edge of a building, about to drop, and there is nothing you can do about it. You feel a kick in your stomach as if you’ve just had the worst news of your life and it’s too late to do anything about it. The world becomes a hostile threat, and everything around you changes into something terrifying. Like a bad dream, all you want to do is run, but your legs have turned to jelly. You want to shout but you can’t. This is an everyday experience when you’re suffering from agoraphobia.

The fear is not of the outside world, of the train, or of the supermarket. The fear is of the way your body and mind will respond to this. Of course I’m not scared of going out and seeing friends. I’m instinctively scared of the terror the panic attack will bring. The brain has, somewhere along the lines, connected these things with imminent danger. The fear is of our fear response itself.

I don’t want this to be all negative. I truly believe I’m on a very positive path to recovery, and that once I’ve overcome this I’ll be stronger than I was before. Overcoming the fear of fear may be the most powerful thing a person can experience, and ultimately life-transforming. Simple in theory but often complex in practice.

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