Agoraphobia can be a tough thing to deal with. It’s a type of anxiety disorder that makes it difficult to leave the house. My friend Jill (not her real name) in Pennsylvania, has a lot of experience with this and has explained what happens to her when it comes on.
The common understanding of agoraphobia is that people are afraid to leave the house. This really isn’t the case, or that wasn’t the case for Jill. We could sit on her porch, go to stores that she was familiar with, walk to a park near her house, and go to her parent’s house (many miles away) without difficulty. As she explained it to me, there were places that felt safe, like in the children’s game of tag, and it wasn’t necessarily about them being close to the house.
She felt that the agoraphobia happened on multiple levels. Jill experienced panic attacks that were overwhelming and unpredictable. During a panic attack she would have a racing heart, dizziness, nausea, and difficulty breathing. The difficulty breathing was the worst symptom as she felt like she was suffocating. Because she couldn’t predict when the panicky feeling would pop up, it made some (but not all) ventures away from the house unsafe. Jill also said that her coping abilities varied from day to day. On days she felt stronger, she might be willing to go to unfamiliar places and places outside her comfort zone. One of the most difficult things for Jill was that some friends and family members were critical and unsupportive of her wavering abilities to go places. They felt she just wasn’t trying hard enough.
As you can imagine, this made life challenging for Jill. But she found a therapist who introduced her to DBT, Dialectical Behavioral Therapy, and this has helped immensely. With DBT she was given the tools to step back from the panicky feelings and begin to manage them, instead of being overwhelmed by them. She has found the skills learned through DBT to be empowering and life changing. It’s not that anxiety and panicky feelings don’t pop up; it’s that she now has the tools to meet them and deal with them. Jill is working, living her life, and managing her anxiety.