What It's Like to Have Agoraphobia - The Fear of the Outside World
Agoraphobia is a psychological disorder you've probably heard of, even if you don't know it by its proper name. Someone who's agoraphobic has a fear of the outdoors, crowds, or wide open spaces. This might seem silly or illogical, but in reality, it's one of the more common phobias. About 1.8 million adults in the United States have agoraphobia, and that number shows no signs of shrinking.
But what exactly is agoraphobia? Fear of wide open spaces dates all the way back to before Ancient Greece, where the condition originally got its name. While it varies a lot from person to person, it mostly centers around anxiety disorders and the subsequent panic-triggered episodes that happen when a person is outside. Over time, these episodes can increase in frequency and severity, and, in extreme cases, prevent a person from even leaving the house. What happens in the body and brain of someone with agoraphobia is both frightening and fascinating, and the repercussions can be severe.
It Can Start Without WarningPhoto: Emmanuel Debrand / Flickr / CC BY 2.0
Most people would think a major phobia starts with some traumatic event or slow conditioning in childhood. In reality, agoraphobia doesn't usually happen this way. It tends to manifest between the ages of 25 and 35, and it can come about with seemingly no warning. One day you're walking down the street when suddenly you feel panicked. The panicking leads to a downward spiral and a pattern of more panicking.
This continues and can get worse over time, and all it takes is a single anxious thought to begin the chain reaction. If you asked most agoraphobes when it all began for them, many probably wouldn't be able to point to a single event. However, agoraphobia is often associated with general panic disorders, depression, or a history of abuse.
It Can Literally Feel Like You're ExpiringPhoto: American Ultra / Lionsgate
You might be wondering how it feels physically when you get a bout of agoraphobia. Well, have you ever been close to your mortal end? Because it kind of feels like you're about to perish. Your heart starts to race, you feel physical pain in your chest, you feel lightheaded, and you can't seem to breathe. You'll sweat, shake, feel unable to move, and you may throw up just from the sheer fear and feeling and helplessness. Some people faint or slip into a catatonic state when it hits hard.
You may even be afraid you really are about to expire. It may be a psychological condition, but make no mistake, you will feel physical effects. Because of this, some people - before they're familiar with it - may think they're experiencing heart failure.
Your Brain Will Respond As If You're Being ChasedPhoto: Hunter McGinnis / Flickr / CC BY 2.0
As an agoraphobic episode sets in, you may start out feeling nervous with no idea why. All you will feel is that something is wrong. Then all of a sudden that little bit of nervousness is screaming at you to run. Now. Run or something terrible is going to happen.
This sense of impending doom is your brain trying to save you from fear, even though it has no direction for that fear to go. In short, you'll feel your fight or flight instinct kick into overdrive. The problem with this is, as it starts happening, the whole world is what the threat is. How do you run from or fight the entirety of existence?
You'll Crave SafetyPhoto: PublicDomainPictures / Pixabay / CC0 1.0
You might think of agoraphobia as a condition where you only worry about going outside, but that's not exactly true. Instead, you worry about pretty much everything: where you have to go next, what you have to say to people, answering the door, sticking to a schedule. Nearly everything feels completely overwhelming, even if it's something as simple as stepping out to get the mail.
Thus, your biggest concern becomes safety. In fact, you'll want to create a perfect little safe environment, and that's likely to be your house or some other safe zone where you feel free from the impact of a panic-triggered episode. This safety is going to feel amazing. It's going to be addictive, and it's going to make you feel like whenever you're not in this safe area you've created, something is deeply wrong. This craving for safety is often what leads to feeling unable to even leave the house, even if you need to get food or toilet paper, pay your bills, or see friends and loved ones.
You'll Always Look For Escape Routes Or Hiding PlacesPhoto: Life-Of-Pix / Pixabay / CC0 1.0
Let's say you like going outside, but you find being outside makes you anxious to the point where you feel jittery or panicked. Maybe you cut your plans short because you're just too nervous. Is there anything you can do to help this? Well, many agoraphobes talk themselves into going outside by being certain they know where they can run to or hide. In case of a panic-triggered episode, it can be helpful to know where the nearest bathroom is, so you can shut yourself in it. Or maybe where the exit is, so you can dash outside to your car.
This often means people with agoraphobia are driven to research and schedule each aspect of their trips. Places they've been before are generally far more comfortable than new situations. They don't want any room for error or slip-ups that will make them feel trapped in a public place. Above all else, that feeling that you're trapped in public with no escape or place to hide is the main factor in most cases of agoraphobia.
It's Like Being Afraid Of Being Afraid
This is basically a Catch-22. Once you have the experience of being out and having a panic-triggered episode, you will become worried about having another one. This means you're less likely to go out or do anything that stresses you. What's worse is once you're out, being afraid of an impending episode can actually cause one. This self-fulfilling prophecy can feel like a stranglehold that reinforces to you over and over that going outside or seeing people is a terrible idea.
It's fear feeding fear, and once it starts, it may make you feel like throwing up or crying. This makes it difficult to break the cycle.