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Overcoming Agoraphobia
Updates / Youth Talk, 11 Aug 22
Practical strategies to manage agoraphobia and tips to support someone living with it.

Welcome to our Youth Talk Blog, a section dedicated to youth lived-experiences with mental health and wellbeing, with blog posts from diverse young people’s perspectives. This is a positive, fun and resourceful space, showcasing young people thriving and connecting with healthful activities, resources and support. This post was written by our Community Education Volunteer, who is a 21-year-old Psychology graduate.

To preface things, I have personal experience being diagnosed with Agoraphobia; it used to really affect my life up until a couple of years ago, so this article will be both informational about the disorder, as well as a personal commentary. Today I can positively say that I manage my Agoraphobia rather well as I have developed personalised strategies for alleviating the symptoms. I look forward to sharing those later in this blog! 

We’ll cover:

  • What Agoraphobia is
  • What it is like to have the disorder
  • How to manage the disorder
  • How friends and family can help those struggling with it

What is Agoraphobia?

For starters, Agoraphobia (agora = place of assembly, phobia = fear) is defined by a person’s fear of situations that are difficult to find help in or hard to escape from, as well as an irrational avoidance of situations that “could” prompt panic attacks or personal catastrophes in front of a crowd. Agoraphobia develops for various reasons, such as a result of a particular trauma or prolonged severe stress; it is most common for teenagers and young adults but is known to develop in children and older adults as well. 

What is it like living with Agoraphobia?

Agoraphobia has challenging physical and cognitive symptoms; however the severity of these symptoms vary situationally from person to person. The physical symptoms of Agoraphobia are similar to Panic Attack Disorder, including rapid and shallow breathing, increased heart rate, stomach aches and/or chest pains. The cognitive symptoms of Agoraphobia extend the fear that “IF” you were to have a panic attack or personal catastrophe, you could: look incompetent, be embarrassed and/or be unable to find safety. People with Agoraphobia may experience difficulty leaving their house; and if they do, it usually requires the close support of a friend or family member. Examples of situations I completely avoided with my Agoraphobia are: confined or crowded spaces such as school assemblies, movie theatres or supermarkets, any form of public transport and standing in lines. 

How to manage and overcome Agoraphobia:

Like many other mental health disorders, managing or overcoming Agoraphobia can be a challenging process. However, with the support of others and or a mental health professional, positive changes can be implemented over time to alleviate Agoraphobia’s impacts. It is important to remember that because Agoraphobia can interfere with numerous aspects of a person’s life, alleviating Agoraphobias impacts requires adequate time, support and dedication. While talking therapy and medications are common protocols for treating Agoraphobia, in my experience, I found that developing personal self-management strategies to be the most beneficial for my overall improvement, however each person’s experience may be different. In my experience, my counsellor was instrumental in developing self-management strategies for my Agoraphobia, here is what helped me:

  • Taking the time to rationalise your fears/concerns: a core component of my Agoraphobia was fighting my unhelpful and spiralling thoughts. To help, what I did was draw a mindmap of all the concerns I had surrounding an event (e.g., leaving the house), and under each concern, I would first list the support systems I had and then write a couple of sentences rationalising my concern. Just like how mindmaps are a good recall tool for studying, my “rationalisation mindmap” meant whenever I was in situations that triggered my irrational fears, I had a series of rational thoughts I could immediately recall and attempt to calm myself with.
  • Practising breathing exercises: practising breathing through my stomach at 5-second intervals provided me with immediate means to calm myself in any situation. 
  • Distracting myself with music: calming music helped me a lot. For me, only instrumental music calmed me down, whether it was classical or a soundtrack from one of my favourite movies. The strategy was to listen to music in situations I was avoiding. For example, I used to avoid bus rides, so the strategy became to listen to music until the second to last stop on the bus and be with my thoughts the last minute or so; I would aim to progressively stop listening to music earlier and earlier each bus ride.
  • Self-guided graded exposure: this is a strategy that can be used to tackle specific situations in a personally empowering way. For example, I used to avoid my school’s morning assemblies; using graded exposure, I would gradually build up my tolerance to the situation. I would start by walking past the assembly hall visualising inside; after a couple of days, I would increase exposure, such as walking through the assembly hall when nobody was there. Where graded exposure was most successful was that it helped me reclaim the trust in myself that I could get through these situations without the assistance of others.

How you can help a friend or family member dealing with Agoraphobia:

Reflecting on my experience with Agoraphobia, I would describe helping someone with the disorder as a very delicate process. Agoraphobia is not a switch that can be suddenly turned off. Friends and family must be patient and consistent; check-in with them regularly and try to involve them with activities that take them outside of the house, whether this is accompanying them in their regular daily activities or including them in your own. Overcoming Agoraphobia can be an uncomfortable process for people dealing with it. The key for friends and family is providing encouragement and reassurance in ways that make the person regain the trust in themselves to feel safe in the situations they avoid.

Support:

Youthline: Free call 0800 376 633 / Free text 234

0800 ANXIETY Helpline: Call our free 24/7 national 0800 ANXIETY Helpline (0800 269 4389) 

Sources:

https://www.healthnavigator.org.nz/health-a-z/a/agoraphobia/#:~:text=Agoraphobia%20is%20a%20type%20of,from%20or%20get%20help%20in

https://www.mayoclinic.org/diseases-conditions/agoraphobia/symptoms-causes/syc-20355987

https://www.banyanmentalhealth.com/2021/04/22/how-to-help-someone-with-agoraphobia/

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