Healing From Severe Panic Disorder & Agoraphobia
Even though it was well over a decade ago, I still remember the day that I was diagnosed with agoraphobia. I had just seen a therapist who was referring me to a psychiatrist to discuss medication, and as I left the therapist’s office she handed me a piece of paper and told me to take it to the check-out desk where my appointment with the psychiatrist would be scheduled.
As I stood in the check-out line, I glanced down at the piece of paper in my hand and saw my diagnoses written by my therapist… “Severe panic disorder and agoraphobia.” I instantly felt the tears well up in my eyes. I put on my sunglasses and handed the receptionist the piece of paper. As soon as I got in my car, I cried uncontrollably.
Panic disorder and agoraphobia weren’t new terms to me. My mom struggled with both when she was in her early twenties. She hadn’t shared much of her struggles with me, but she had shared some, and I knew that anxiety ran pretty prevalent in our family. She had shared with me that my grandfather struggled with anxiety his entire life, my uncle struggled with anxiety and OCD, and my great-grandmother struggled with severe agoraphobia her entire life.
So seeing panic disorder and agoraphobia written on a piece of paper with my name on it, well, it somehow made my struggles feel even more real to me. I remember thinking, Yup, I am a complete mess! I already felt so much hopelessness on a daily basis, and this somehow heightened that feeling even more (which I didn’t think was even possible).
And even though I already knew what I was struggling with before being formally diagnosed by my therapist, seeing my diagnoses written on paper made me feel incredibly scared.
I immediately began to think things like… Is this something that I’ll struggle with for the rest of my life? Can I overcome it? What if medication doesn’t work? What if things get worse? What if I can’t continue to work or go to school?
At the time, I was working full-time and also in college full-time. Looking back, I quite honestly have no idea how I did it all. I had such a hard time riding in cars, sitting in meetings, sitting in classes, being around lots of people, being far from home, being away from my “safe” person - my mom, going into stores. Everything was so incredibly hard!
Throughout my journey with panic disorder and agoraphobia I was never housebound. Although I wanted nothing more than to stop going to school and work and doing the everyday things, I kept doing it all. I remember telling my mom that as hard as it all was, I knew that if I stayed home and stopped pushing myself to go to work and school, everything would just get worse and make it harder to overcome. Was it the right decision? I don’t know. I know that if I could go back, I wouldn’t have pushed myself quite so hard, but I also think that continuing to face it all every day was helpful in many ways.
So did I actually struggle with agoraphobia if I was never housebound? Yes, absolutely! Not everyone that struggles with agoraphobia is housebound. Agoraphobia is when you have fears that cause you to want to avoid places and situations that may lead to feelings of being trapped, embarrassed, or panic. It doesn’t mean that you always avoid, or never leave your house.
In fact, I actually moved from Maine to Utah while struggling with agoraphobia, as well as from Utah to Massachusetts, and then back to Maine! Wild, huh? And while I lived in Utah, I did lots of traveling and exploring. I took trips to Yellowstone, to Grand Teton, Las Vegas (multiple times), and a few other pretty awesome places. And you might be thinking… Um, what? How the heck did you do all of this while struggling? Trust me, it didn’t always look pretty, and it definitely wasn’t always enjoyable or fun (ask my husband)! Looking back on this part of my life, I’m amazed by everything that I did while struggling. But I’ve always been an adventurer, even while struggling!
If you haven’t heard me say this before, I want to take a minute and say it now… Anxiety, panic disorder, or agoraphobia can’t take away all of the amazing parts of you. Your adventurous spirit, your creativity, your intelligence, your braveness, your dreams, your future. All of the amazing parts of you are in there! You just gotta keep taking healthy action to reignite all of those amazing parts of you and create the life you want and deserve to live! You choose your path. You choose whether or not you move forward and heal. Not anxiety, not panic, not anyone or anything else!
So even though I adventured often, I also did lots of avoiding! I avoided riding as the passenger in cars. This was because as the passenger I felt like I had even less control if I were to be hit with anxiety or panic. I avoided traffic. I actually avoided cars altogether when I could, and also avoided public transportation. I avoided being alone (including while at home). I avoided being too far from home. I avoided being around new, or lots of people. Ultimately, I tried to avoid feeling anxious or panicky at all costs.
And that last one is really what it all came down to for me. I tried to avoid feeling anxious or panicky at all costs. Feeling anxious and panicky to me equaled unsafe, dangerous, and bound to lead to something bad happening. Spoiler alert - this is so far from the truth! Feelings can feel scary but they don't equal danger.
For me, I developed agoraphobia after experiencing panic attacks. Panic attacks used to be my everyday, and I sometimes had multiple panic attacks a day. Sometimes I’d experience panic attacks so severe that I’d experience nausea, vomiting, weakness, dizziness, and even fainting. Yes, you can faint in relation to panic but it’s super rare. I’ve experienced hundreds, probably thousands of panic attacks and passed out less than a handful of times. I know that reading this is probably surprising and a little scary, but I’m still here, right? It was definitely scary at the moment but nothing bad or catastrophic ever happened to me! In addition to those other symptoms, I also experienced symptoms like depersonalization and derealization, heart palpitations, breathlessness, shakiness, and the list goes on!
Whether the panic attack was mild or severe, experiencing panic severely heightened all of my fears. I constantly convinced myself that I had little to no control, and that I could, and likely would lose all control at any moment. So in order to try to get ahead of feeling the symptoms, anxiety, or panic, I tried my best to have control in any and all situations. I’d sit close to the exits. I’d request to be the driver or drive alone. I’d map out an exit plan before I even walked into places or situations. I’d constantly scan and check for symptoms. I’d bail on plans if I felt the slightest bit anxious.
I truly felt and was convinced that more control equaled safety. And I didn’t know this at the time, but always seeking out control is something that actually fueled the symptoms, anxiety, panic, and my fears. Go figure!
Panic is a big driver of developing agoraphobia for many people. But aside from panic, what were some other things that contributed to my struggle with agoraphobia?
Maybe genetics: I say maybe because the research just isn’t there! But many people in my family have struggled with an anxiety disorder. But the bottom line is - a genetic predisposition or not, I still overcame it!
Childhood trauma and emotional trauma. The trauma that I experienced as a child and teenager definitely contributed to my struggles. And it was a big reason why I always sought out control and safety.
Avoidance. Avoidance was a huge one! Avoiding only reinforced the symptoms, the anxiety, and panic, and had the feelings and sensations returning over and over again!
Seeking reassurance. I was constantly seeking reassurance from my mom and my boyfriend (now husband). Although they were so helpful, neither of them could work through the anxious or panicky moment for me! It was always me, and it took me way too long to realize the power that I held within me all along.
Having an unhealthy response to anxiety and panic. My response to anxiety was always to run or fight, both of which just fueled the anxiety. I also spent lots of time beating myself up and having little to no compassion with myself which just made my journey so much harder.
Panic attacks, trauma, fearing fear, having an unhealthy response to anxiety and panic, these are all things that I healed from. And that piece of paper that had my diagnoses written on it, it didn’t change anything. It didn’t define my path. It didn’t stop me from overcoming panic disorder and agoraphobia. It didn’t stop me from creating the peaceful, adventurous, and joyful life that I live today!
If you’re struggling with agoraphobia, whether you’re housebound or not, I want you to know that being diagnosed with agoraphobia isn’t a life sentence. It doesn’t mean that you’ll always struggle with anxiety, panic, and fear. It doesn’t mean that you won’t do all of the amazing things that you want to do in life. It doesn’t mean that you should put your life on hold and not LIVE until you’ve recovered. Recovery happens while you’re living. And you deserve to live!
If you’d like a little push to help you along your recovery journey, check out my online course, Pushing Past Your Anxious Thoughts! In the course, I teach you lots of practical and actionable steps that you can take to help you overcome your anxious thoughts, the symptoms, panic, and fears! Actually, they’re the tools that I used to overcome my journey with anxiety, panic disorder, and agoraphobia.