What it's like to have agoraphobia
Our guest blogger Becky talks about how her anxiety developed into debilitating agoraphobia - and how she learned to cope
I stood on the pavement and the world swam in front of me.
Everyone seemed to be walking faster, speaking quicker; buildings looked huge and intimidating and I was certain that I was about to collapse. I grabbed the wall for support and my breath came out in short, rasping bursts.
My heart was hammering so loudly I could feel it in my throat. I wanted to cry, scream and run all at the same time and yet I was rooted to the spot.
Bewildered at such terrifying sensations, I scrambled around in my bag for my mobile to call for help but was then gripped by another sensation. Everything suddenly looked even stranger than it had before and the world took on an out of focus, unreal appearance as if I wasn’t even in my own body.
Was I going mad?
What was wrong with me?!
There was no one to hold my hand or guide me home. I was alone, in a city I hardly knew and I felt like I was dying. Sobbing, I slumped to the ground, aware of people walking around me as I curled up in a ball, petrified by the haunting world I had somehow become a part of and longing for an end to my intense and seemingly unprovoked suffering...
Agoraphobia had gripped me after enduring immense anxiety for many years. It used to be that when I experienced a panic attack I would race outside for air, for distraction from my thoughts and feelings and to escape the almost claustrophobic sensations that I suffered. However, one day I felt unwell and faint when outside and this triggered a new disorder that I never thought I would ever have to confront; that of agoraphobia. For me, this was devastating. I spent so much of my time outside. I always had, since being a child, and the desolation I felt at facing a future indoors overwhelmed me.
My biggest fear was that I would collapse in the street, all alone and that I wouldn’t be able to get to safety. It didn’t take too much research to realise I was not alone with such thoughts. I made myself aware of the origins of agoraphobia and became acquainted with all the listed symptoms and treatments most commonly used. However, I was extremely isolated and though knowledgeable, I didn’t know how to reach out for help, or who I could trust to turn to. The few people I did speak to made me feel even lonelier as they preferred to think that I was simply afraid of large, open spaces, but it was so much more than that. It felt to me as if my whole world was falling apart.
Someone very kindly and with much compassion took my hand the day I was discovered curled up on the pavement and they saved me from myself. They taught me all about cognitive behaviour therapy over a coffee in a cafe that I nursed with trembling fingers. They helped me to analyse the way I was thinking and when I considered my anxious symptoms, I could see how my irrational thoughts had created them.
Yet I still felt powerless to alter the way my mind worked; helpless in my own line of fire. However, determination fuelled my spirit and enhanced my motivation. I wanted a normal life again and I was going to find a way to get it back.
The basis of cognitive behaviour therapy is to recognise that despite all the amazingly terrifying sensations when experiencing a panic attack, nothing dramatically awful actually happens to you. I appreciated the rationale but doubts still remained. I reckoned that one day, something terrible would actually happen to me; I would vomit in the street or collapse against a shop window or, God forbid, race down the road screaming at the top of my lungs and ripping off my clothes!
I had to stop fearing fear and I needed to recognise that panic really couldn’t do me any harm. It felt impossible to me. I woke up with anxiety and went to sleep with it, it exhausted me and it was diminishing my spirit. I needed a break and only I could give myself one and I knew that to face my fear was going to take more courage than I had ever mustered before to simply get through the day.
I tested myself to see if I could challenge my thoughts and stop misinterpreting my symptoms. I had always used distraction to help me through anxiety but I knew I needed to work hard at my thinking to really see the end of panic, once and for all.
At first it was so difficult immersing myself in my thoughts. I didn’t want to analyse my symptoms and cognitions, I wanted to forget them and move on but I forced myself to really think and capture the irrational and fearful thoughts just as they entered my head.
I accepted that the sensations I was experiencing were simply the result of the innate flight or fight response built into all of us; acceptance really was the key. I became an observer of myself, let go of the past and my symptoms, and suddenly discovered my mind free again to explore life!
Suddenly I began to accumulate positive memories and these started to replace the negative ones in my mind. I ventured further from home, alone, and didn’t feel as anxious as I did. I caught each irrational and worrying thought as it arrived and challenged it straight away. Then I continued with my day, accepting that sometimes I would walk hand-in-hand with anxiety.
Today I live a life almost free of worrying thoughts, anxiety and agoraphobia. I have fun times with my outgoing daughter; I enjoy voluntary work, writing and teaching. I count my blessings every day for the stranger who took my hand, for cognitive behaviour therapy and for the joy of living; I love each and every day.
Becky's tips for coping with panic and anxiety
- Firstly try to think of anything that may distract you and help you through the day. It can be literally anything; television, a lighthearted magazine, scribbling notes into a book, drawing a picture...and do it as best as you can.
- Ring a friend and tell them how you feel but let them talk to you, just simply listen.
- Look around the room you are in, could you describe anything in detail, make a story out of what you see, a poem perhaps?
- Don't read anything on anxiety just yet, this is to take your mind off it entirely so that you can learn more coping strategies later.
- Pick up some stress balls and listen to some music that you really love.
- Think about what you would really like to do tomorrow.
- Remember each time that this anxiety WILL go, honestly, I have been there and you will feel better and nothing will happen to you. You have more control than most people.
- Use imagery, fantasy. Dream about being a pop star or meeting a famous person. Think about your boyfriend/girlfriend, dream a situation that involves them. Think about a really relaxing place and be there in your mind.
- Keep trying to do these things even though the anxiety beckons.
- Above all, keep smiling. You are a strong, caring person and you most certainly will get through this.