Panic attacks can be extremely difficult to manage. The attacks typically start with feelings of dread and apprehension, followed by disturbing physical symptoms. During a panic attack, for example, a person may experience somatic sensations such as shortness of breath, numbness and tingling, shaking, excessive sweating, chest pain and feelings of choking.
The physical symptoms of panic and anxiety are often accompanied by upsetting thoughts and emotions. For instance, when panic attack symptoms escalate, it is not uncommon to be afraid that you are having a medical emergency, losing control of yourself, or even “going crazy."
Many panic sufferers find these attacks to be frightening and stressful experiences. If panic attacks are leading to a sense of lack of safety, it may indicate that the person has developed agoraphobia, a separate mental health disorder that is often related to panic disorder. Agoraphobia is a phobia that encompasses a fear about having panic attacks in certain places or situations. Agoraphobics are afraid of experiencing panic-like symptoms or full-blown panic attacks in circumstances from which it would be difficult to escape, such as on a plane, while driving, or in a wide-open space.
Many agoraphobia sufferers are also fearful of having a panic attack in a situation from which it would be embarrassing for them to flee, such as at a crowded shopping mall or in front of co-workers. To alleviate these feelings of anxiety, many agoraphobics will begin to avoid places of concern. Avoidance behaviors may initially relieve some anxiety, but in the long-run, avoidance only serves to increase the intensity of fear and anxiety. These fears have the potential to be disabling, causing the person to be homebound with agoraphobia.
Despite the challenges faced by people with agoraphobia, it is still possible to learn to manage these symptoms and live a fulfilling life. The following offers some tips for coping with agoraphobia:
Get Professional TreatmentCoping with agoraphobia usually begins by getting professional help. Your doctor or mental health specialist can assist you in receiving a proper diagnosis and treatment plan; treatment for agoraphobia often involves a combination of medication to help reduce anxiety, and psychotherapy to assist you in skill building. To get the most out of treatment, follow your prescription as directed by your doctor, work on therapy goals between sessions, and stay on task with your treatment plan.
Develop Relaxation TechniquesPracticing relaxation techniques is a helpful way for you to reduce anxiety and feel calmer. Popular relaxation practices, such as deep breathing, yoga, visualization, progressive muscle relaxation (PMR) and meditation, can aid you in reducing feelings of stress and worry. These techniques can be learned either through the assistance of your therapist, through a qualified professional (i.e. certified yoga instructor, meditation practitioner, etc.), or through the guidance found in self-help books. In order to get the most out of relaxation techniques, practice them when you are not feeling anxious. If you master these techniques at less stressful times, you will be more prepared to use them when panic strikes.
Find Additional Social SupportFeelings of loneliness and isolation are undoubtedly a common issue for agoraphobics. You may feel that others don’t understand what you are going through, or perhaps you fear that others would judge you if they knew about your condition. If you are feeling all alone in your struggle with agoraphobia, consider participating in group therapy or a local support group. Such groups can help you connect, learn from, and share with others who can relate to your experience. If agoraphobia is impacting your ability to leave home, try connecting with others through an online support forum or message board. The empathy, encouragement and understanding of others can help you stay motivated on your road to recovery.
Participate in Self-Care ActivitiesSelf-care practices involve any activities that you participate in to increase your overall sense of health and wellbeing. These activities may involve paying attention to your physical needs, such as eating healthy, getting enough sleep, and exercising regularly. You may find it beneficial to address your spiritual needs, such as reading inspiring books, attending your place of worship, or spending time in nature. You may also find it helpful to tend to your creative side through self-care activities, such as painting, cooking, or journal writing. Regardless of what self-care looks like to you, try to make some time to engage in these activities. Taking care of yourself can be a fun and valuable way to cope with agoraphobia.
Brush Yourself Off and Try AgainYou may face some setbacks along the way as you try to overcome feared situations and avoidance behaviors, but try not to let potential obstacles completely throw off your recovery efforts. It's important to remain forgiving and kind with yourself as you learn to manage your symptoms. By following your treatment plan, taking care of yourself, and remaining patient, you can learn to successfully cope with agoraphobia.
American Psychiatric Association. (2000). Diagnostic and statistical manual of mental disorders, 4th ed., text revision. Washington, DC: Author.
Bourne, E. J. (2011). The Anxiety and Phobia Workbook. 5th ed. Oakland, CA: New Harbinger.