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My recovery from Agoraphobia

This page created 22 July 2013


By Voula (ACAP Placement Student)



My journey through agoraphobia began in my early twenties. I will never forget the day I had my first full blown panic attack. I was sitting in the car feeling stressed about something, when all of a sudden I felt like I couldn’t breathe. My heart started pounding and a sense of impending doom came over me. My surroundings felt strange and I felt an unreal sensation I had not felt before. I became very scared. What was happening to me? As I drove home, my legs were shaking so much I was scared I might not be able to step on the brake. When I got home I burst into tears, unable to understand what had just happened.
 
Three years before this first panic attack my mother died of cancer. She had gone to hospital for a routine surgery and a few months later she was gone. In the following two years, two members of my extended family died, one after a long illness and another in a car accident.  It was a shocking and emotionally overwhelming time. My belief that life continues from day to day was shattered and my sense of safety severely shaken. It seemed at this time that the whole world had gone mad and maybe I didn’t want to be in it.
 
After that first panic attack I started to feel afraid whenever I left the house, just in case “it” happened again. I also started to avoid driving because “what if” my legs shook so much from fear that I couldn’t put the brakes on?   Slowly my world grew smaller. I lived with panic attacks and agoraphobia for many years. Then one day I came across a newspaper article about a woman called Pauline McKinnon who had written a book called “In Stillness Conquer Fear”, the story of her recovery from agoraphobia. As I read Pauline’s book and saw the similarities in    our experiences I felt real hope about my own recovery for the first time. The article also said that Pauline taught meditation in Kew, Melbourne. That was a few suburbs away. I could get to her classes. And so began my slow journey of healing from agoraphobia. There were many ups and downs, two steps forward and one step back.  I often felt discouraged that my recovery wasn’t as fast as Pauline’s was, as documented in her book. Pauline reassured me often, reminding me that everyone’s journey was different. I also began to see a psychologist and started to get more in touch with my feelings. I started to understand why I had developed agoraphobia.
 
A very important thing I did was to educate myself about anxiety. This was pre-internet days and I would go to the local library and borrow books about anxiety and personal growth. I think I read every personal growth book in the library. I found the Claire Weekes books invaluable. She described very clearly what a panic attack was, how when we panic we get anxious about panicking. This raises our anxiety level and so we make another panic attack more likely. She called it adding second fear to fear.  I also learned and started to believe that panic attacks wouldn’t kill me or drive me mad, although it might have felt like it. In her books Claire Weekes described four steps which can be used to overcome panic attacks and agoraphobia. They are, face the fear, accept the fear, float, and let time pass. I carried one of her books with me when travelling in addition to Pauline’s book, with bookmarks at relevant pages which I would read to help me relax if I felt very anxious. That helped a lot. Distraction also helped me with travelling, especially listening to music through headphones. So through meditation, counselling and educating myself about anxiety I gained confidence and started to challenge my fears.
 
Another thing which was very helpful for me was having a dream, a goal and a purpose so that even at times when I was quite housebound my mind remained active. I found volunteer work I could do from home, which included facilitating a phone support group for women who suffered from anxiety, volunteering as a creative writing tutor corresponding with students by mail and studying. So I always felt connected to others and the world. I can see how people can become seriously depressed if they are constantly within the same four walls, lacking contact and communication with others and without much new stimulation in their days. I remember in my very anxious times I would change the furniture around regularly for a change. I think being passionate about something is so important in overcoming agoraphobia. When your passion for something is greater than your fear it helps a lot in getting out of the house. My passion for learning gave me the courage to return to university to do further study. I really didn’t know how I would attend classes several times a week but I was determined. I told myself I would just go to enrolment day and worry about the rest later. Step by step was important.
 
Joining a support group was one of the best things I did. Meeting others with similar problems was a major factor in my recovery from severe anxiety. Sharing stories, tears and much laughter with others was, and is, vital, not just in overcoming anxiety but to being fully alive. Laughing with others in that Saturday morning group about our anxiety and ourselves was very healing. From that group I also learned not to define or label myself as an agoraphobic. I was myself who sometimes got anxious. For me, that was empowering.
 
Support from others was very important. In the early years of my anxiety I relied a lot on others to do my shopping for me, to drive me to the shops or appointments, or to be a support person on an outing. Again, Pauline’s words have stayed with me. I asked her one day why some people take longer to recover than others. She said anxious people need support, but we can also be “too” supported. If so, we never stretch our wings and fly on our own.
 
Due to changes in my life recently, some chosen, some not, I have moved outside of my comfort zones in many areas. Whilst at times this has been quite anxiety provoking, I have found that facing more of my fears and challenges has helped me to grow. Just as fear can feed fear, success can feed on success. In recent times as my world has expanded even more and I have gained more confidence, I am starting to change the way I think about anxiety. Whereas once I would try to avoid anxiety, I am now starting to welcome it, to see it as a growing pain. Anxiety is a part of life and the only way to avoid anxiety is to avoid life. Now, I try to welcome anxiety provoking situations or challenges, and move towards them, knowing that my anxiety is a sign of growth. Today I am sitting in the ADAVIC office typing this, feeling comfortable and happy, after a one hour trip on the train to get here.   Sometimes it is hard to imagine how anxious I was.


References

  • Pauline McKinnon (2008). In stillness conquer fear. John Garratt Publishing.
  • Dr Claire Weekes (2008). Complete self-help for your nerves.  Harper Collins Australia.
 

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