Lots of people talk about having a ‘phobia’ about something if they don’t like it or are scared of it. My son used to tell me regularly he had a phobia about brussel sprouts and homework! The medical definition of a phobia is rather different. You have to be so anxious about something that you regularly alter your behaviour to avoid it. Sometimes even thinking about the thing or situation you have a phobia about is enough to make you severely anxious.
Agoraphobia means a fear of open spaces, especially ones where making a getaway might be difficult.
How much of a problem is it?
Some people can carry on their lives with a few adjustments. For a few, the anxiety is so severe that normal life is pretty much impossible and their lives are ruled by their condition.
What triggers agoraphobia?
Everyone’s story is different. However, most people have had one or more situations where they found themselves ‘exposed’ – perhaps because they suddenly felt unwell when they were a long way from home – and couldn’t get back to a place where they felt safe. The next time they had to face being in a similar situation they became very anxious, and a vicious cycle starts. It’s that feeling of severe anxiety or panic that they want to avoid.
How can I help myself?
There are lots of options for working on your general stress and anxiety levels. Relaxation techniques, perhaps through yoga classes (many authorities have classes for beginners or more mature people, which are less physically taxing), can help enormously. Breathing exercises which help you to relax in stages can also be really useful – ask at your local library for books and tapes about this. There are lots of self help groups for people with phobias – ask your GP or council about how you can meet other people who share and understand your fears, and who can offer you support.
What medical help is available?
Cognitive Behavioural Therapy (CBT) involves exposing you gradually to the situation you’re scared of and staying in it until your anxiety passes. This can be done by getting you to imagine the situation while you’re sitting with the therapist. Over time, you should become less and less anxious at the thought. They will also help you to understand what’s at the root of the problem and challenge your anxiety (how likely is it really that ‘the worst’ – whatever that is – will happen?) You may be given exercises to do gradually. For instance, if you’re scared of your crowded city centre, your therapist might encourage you to start by going part of the way there with someone at a time when it’s not crowded. It’s scary to begin with and it takes time, but it really works.
Antidepressant tablets can also help, because some of them have been found to be very effective for anxiety as well as depression.
Why am I terrified?
We all know someone who seems calm and unflappable until a tiny spider or even a butterfly appears. Suddenly they either freeze or panic.
Most phobias, like agoraphobia, stem from one or more experiences in our lives. For fear of spiders, snakes etc, it’s often because a parent figure was also terrified. As children, we see our parents as all powerful and faultless – so if they’re scared of something, it must be serious!
To have a phobia, you must get so anxious about something that you change your behaviour to avoid encountering it. That means that by definition, it’ll have an impact on your life. Arachnophobia (fear of spiders) is extremely common, but most people don’t have to make too many adjustments to their lives. Social phobia – fear of social situations - and claustrophobia – fear of enclosed spaces – are often more debilitating.
Fortunately, most phobias can be treated in a similar way to agoraphobia.
With thanks to 'My Weekly' magazine where this article was originally published.