When my panic attacks first started, they were so relentless and so often that I quickly developed agoraphobia, which is the fear of leaving “safe spaces” for fear of having a panic attack elsewhere. My life went from being quite adventurous to becoming very, very confined.
I was terrified to leave my house, especially alone. If I had a “safe person” go with me, I could usually tolerate venturing out a little bit more. In my mind, having a person nearby that understood my condition meant that, if I were to panic, they would help me. They could rush me to the hospital or drive me home or get me out of there.
What did I think was going to happen if I panicked outside of my home?
I thought I might pass out.
I thought I might “lose my mind” and no one around would be able to help me.
I thought I might embarrass myself.
I thought I might dissociate so much that I forgot where I was.
I had one of my worst panic attacks while driving so I stopped driving altogether. I stopped going grocery shopping or to doctor’s appointments or even to hang out with friends.
Slowly but surely, I was able to gain my life back, and I’d like to share some of the things I learned along the way.
I wish I could tell you there’s a quick fix. But there’s not. It was excruciating each time I ventured out. It was horrible and terrifying and it took every ounce of courage in me. But I did it. And you can too.
-Realize that there’s no such thing as “safe spaces.”
I read one day about a woman with panic disorder who began traveling around the world. She said, “I figured if I was going to have a panic attack, I might as well have it at the beach rather than in my living room.”
A light bulb went off in my head. There’s literally NO DIFFERENCE physiologically between having a panic attack on your couch or having one at a restaurant or at the movies or in the car.
I know it feels like you can’t escape or that you’ll embarrass yourself. But physiologically, the panic attack is exactly the same. It’s fear coursing through your body and wherever that happens makes not one difference.
Safe spaces are completely arbitrary when it comes down to it.
-Really, truly accept that a panic attack cannot hurt you
I used to have this intense fear that a panic attack could hurt me, which only fuels the cycle of anxiety. When you can work on really, truly accepting that a panic attack cannot and will not hurt you under any circumstances, you start to realize that you have far more control than you realize.
If you panic at the movies, you’re not going to die or go crazy or do something embarrassing. Think about it: have you ever done something crazy or embarrassing while panicking? I know I haven’t. In actuality, most people don’t even know I’m having one.
You have complete control over how you react to a panic attack. Work on your self-talk when panic arises: “I am safe. This will pass. I’ve felt this many times before and it always passes. I know that this is just my body and mind’s reactions to fear.”
-Feel the fear and do it anyway
This phrase was probably the biggest turning point in my recovery from agoraphobia. At first, I remember going to the grocery store, rounding a corner and basically losing my vision from lightheadedness. I freaked out, ran out of the store, and drove home where I remained in a state of high anxiety for a couple hours. I felt like I needed to “get out” and “run” when fear arose.
When I read the phrase, “feel the fear and do it anyway,” something clicked. Oh, you mean I can allow fear to be in my body and still do whatever I need to do? You mean I don’t have to run or get to safety?
We can feel the fear, and then do it anyway. The panic attack will end whether you stay in the store or go home.
So then whenever I’d venture out and start to panic, I’d say to myself, “feel the fear and do it anyway.” I continued doing whatever I needed to do, allowing that fear to simply be in my body.
Did it suck like you wouldn’t believe? Absolutely. Feeling that fear is awful. But when you continue to do it anyway, each time the fear lessens and lessens until eventually it’s gone.
Don’t let fear stop you from doing what you want to do.
There’s a fine, often confusing, line between pushing ourselves out of our comfort zone and also respecting our limits. Anxiety will keep us small if we let it, so we need to push ourselves to venture out. But we also don’t want to do anything that will threaten to push us over the edge.
So start small. I remember I began driving a few minutes down the street at a time. I started with a very small grocery store, rather than a supermarket. I went on very small walks or just sat outside for a few minutes a day. Eventually, I worked my way up with each of those things.
When I first started traveling post-panic, I knew I needed to be on a short, direct flight both ways. Taking a trip with multiple flights and a 7-hour travel time wouldn’t have been good for me. Now, after several short flights, I feel I might be ready for a longer travel time, but I would never have started out with that.
Respect your limits but know your own strength.
Overcoming agoraphobia was by far the hardest thing I’ve ever had to do in my life. Don’t be ashamed of your progress. You are so brave. You are so strong. Celebrate each time you look fear in the face and say, not this time. So, so, so much love to you on your journey.