How to Overcome the Debilitating Panic of Agoraphobia

Person in sweater with pulled-back hair looks out through open blinds to reddish-tinted lightAgoraphobia, which involves a fear of leaving the house, driving on freeways or other roads, being in lines or in the open, and similar situations, is a condition that provokes anxiety and panic attacks.

The uniquely debilitating characteristic of agoraphobia is that it is a self-perpetuating condition, often referred to as an “emotional and physical cage.” It effectively prevents the person experiencing it from doing the things that may bring healing—like taking a walk, taking a trip, etc.—because of the severity of the potential panic attacks when the person moves behind the boundaries of comfort.

The physiological symptoms of a panic attack can include the inability to breathe, a feeling of physical paralysis, blurred vision, or dizziness to the point of fainting when the person moves beyond these perceived boundaries.

If you struggle with agoraphobia, what can you do to help yourself overcome it?

Recovery involves interventions on three fronts: (1) facing the panic, (2) implementing coping skills, and (3) addressing the underlying issues.

Facing the Panic

There is a catch-22 in recovery from agoraphobia: you must learn to endure the panic attacks in order to stop having them. This involves finding a goal that is bigger than your anxieties and that is worth enduring the extreme discomfort, like being able to go to dinner with your family, taking a vacation, etc. Think of this as your motivation to heal yourself. Please be assured that in following these strategies, the attacks are likely to become less frequent and less severe in time, eventually disappearing altogether.

As with any recovery process, it helps to locate yourself within your problems, envision yourself outside of them, and develop step-by-step strategies to make the transition.

To start the recovery process, think of yourself as being trapped inside a barbed-wire enclosure; your freedom resides on the outside of this enclosure. The idea is the barbed wire represents your panic attacks, the emotional and physical cage of your self-perceived “boundaries.” In essence, you need to climb over the barbed-wire fence to freedom—and this requires facing the barbs, or the panic attacks, in order to overcome their power.

Repetition is necessary in order to heal. Every day, it is important to take yourself on a trip to face your panic, endure your panic, and ultimately, overcome your panic.

Another useful metaphor to visualize is to think of yourself as a prisoner creating an escape plan. You will need to develop strategies for escaping your prison. It is like falling down a well and having to crawl back up over the jagged rocks to escape. As a prisoner with an escape plan, you know the journey will be a tough one, full of booby traps and pitfalls, but that your freedom lies beyond.

Please know progress will be slow but steady, and that sometimes you will stretch your boundaries, but sometimes they will feel like they are shrinking around you. But don’t be discouraged—this is all part of the process of healing.

To begin, set a small goal. Think of an activity you would like to try to participate in. An example is taking a trip to the library. If your destination is the library, you will have to endure the panic attack of driving or getting on the bus in order to travel there. However, once you arrive, if it is something you truly wanted to do and enjoy, your panic will likely subside, and you will likely feel better after you return home again.

Repetition is necessary in order to heal. Every day, it is important to take yourself on a trip to face your panic, endure your panic, and ultimately, overcome your panic.

Implementing Coping Skills

Coping skills may help you in the moment. Here are some tried strategies you can implement as the need arises. The point is to distract your mind from the anxiety.

Strategy 1: Counting

  • In your mind, count to 11. Then count backward to two. Then count up to 12. Then backward to three, etc.
  • Count items of certain things in the room by category; for instance, count everything you see that is orange. You can do this with a variety of categories.

Strategy 2: Locate Patterns

  • Write lists or patterns on a piece of paper.
  • Fold a piece of paper systematically.

Strategy 3: Accept Your Panic Attacks

  • Do not “stoke” your panic by being afraid to have an attack; this will likely only prolong the attack.
  • Learn to endure and accept the attacks. As you do this, they may become less severe and frequent.
  • Realize “that which you resist, persists.”

Addressing Underlying Issues

A pivotal quality of agoraphobia to be aware of, one that may help you in your recovery, is the concept the condition provides a type of “reflection” for you. If you can see there are some situations in your life that exacerbate your panic attacks, you can look at these situations as indicators of areas in your life that need to be addressed.

Seeking therapy is highly recommended, but in lieu of or in addition to therapy, it is most important for you to be self-aware of the connections between situations, events, and your panic attacks. These issues can be related to job, family, or other dynamics that might normally produce minor stress symptoms.

As part of the process of becoming self-aware, it is a good idea to keep a journal, one that records not only when you have attacks, but what happened in your life around the time you had the attack. What were you feeling? What feelings or memories did it trigger? As you work through these issues, in addition to progressively enduring your attacks, you may find your freedom once again.

© Copyright 2017 GoodTherapy.org. All rights reserved. Permission to publish granted by Sharie Stines, PsyD, therapist in La Mirada, California

The preceding article was solely written by the author named above. Any views and opinions expressed are not necessarily shared by GoodTherapy.org. Questions or concerns about the preceding article can be directed to the author or posted as a comment below.

  • 5 comments
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  • Lili

    Lili

    February 28th, 2017 at 8:26 AM

    It would be devastating to anyone I would think financially to have this fear. Not all jobs are something that you could do from home, nor are there all that many opportunities. Wow, I just can’t even imagine being imprisoned like that.

  • Judson

    Judson

    February 28th, 2017 at 2:25 PM

    I have lived in fear of leaving my house for several years now, and although I will do it when I absolutely have to, it takes me practically a week to work my way up to it. The one thing that has saved me lately is that I can have so many different things delivered and I guess in some ways this sort of feeds the fear because I don’t even have to leave for the bare necessities anymore.
    I watch church from home, work from home, really I just don’t get out a lot.
    I have thought about trying teletherapy but I think that I am scared of what would be asked of me doing that and I don’t know if I am truly ready for the commitment yet.

  • Judith

    Judith

    March 5th, 2017 at 7:46 AM

    When I allow myself to feel and experience the panic instead of overtly trying to smother it, I find that the panic isn’t quite as intense as it can be when I try so desperately to keep it from happening.

  • Chloe

    Chloe

    March 5th, 2017 at 11:48 AM

    I do not know how often you will hear of my situation but I have agoraphobia and my husband has agoraphobia with panic. He has left the house 4 times in the last 3 years and that was to go to doctors appts. I wiil leave my house if I have someone else to go with me, if not I give a trusted friend my card and list and they go for me. I do remember that it did take me a little over 3 years to be able to drive (especially in the snow) more than a block at a time. CBT therapy helped and I would rent driving games for an xbox and practice on that. Snow would really cause me to freeze up. I have done well because I will leave my home 3 times a month and thats better than where I was at 6 years ago.

  • Zac

    Zac

    January 9th, 2018 at 11:10 PM

    I suffer acrophobia my parents try to help me but I guess they can’t I mean they keep yelling at me that I suffer this and they give me a lecture every time about wot do I do when I go to my friends house. If I do something wrong they yell at me, well actually my dad does. I am tired of this. But I will not give up. And the people who are reading this comment u too never give up.

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