I’ve debated writing this post for a while, as it almost feels a tad hypocritical to do a how-to on something that I have yet to fully master myself. However, since going through some massive changes in my life in the last year (like becoming a mum – high five!) I’ve started to gain some headway with the fight against agoraphobia, and while I’m not completely ‘cured’ yet (whatever that means) I feel like I’ve got a pretty good handle on my shit. So I decided to write this in a two, or maybe three part series, and that way I’m not getting ahead of myself and writing stuff that I haven’t managed yet. In Part One I’m going to tackle the beginning steps to getting yourself out of the house, or bedroom, or just simply out of bed – from someone who was housebound for two years and is now managing to get out of the house on a daily basis.
Step One: Write it all out.
It’s important with any goals you have in life to really break them down and understand why you want to achieve them. Obviously with something like agoraphobia – the goal is to get better. And the reason for that is that no one wants to feel terrified all the time, because it a) sucks, and b) really interferes with your chances of living a happy and fulfilling life. So grab yourself a paper and pen and start making some lists. First you want to make a list of all the things you want out of your life. Do you want to go back to study? To work? To having a social life? Kids? Partner? Marriage? Write it down. It doesn’t matter if it seems out of reach, don’t worry about that just yet. Dig deep and let yourself imagine what your life could be like and how you would like that to look.
Next, make a list of all the ways in which your agoraphobia is holding you back. How does it interfere with your ability to work? To socialise? To enjoy life? Go into detail. You probably feel like you already know this stuff, after all – you live it every day. I know, I’ve been there. Just write it, though. It helps to get clear. Now write a list of what your life might look like if you were to beat agoraphobia. How would you feel? What would you like to spend your days doing? Where do you see yourself in two years, five years, ten years, without agoraphobia? What will your life look like if you continue to avoid, to stay inside, to fear having a panic attack? Will you be able to achieve the things you want to? Get clear. Really think about it and give yourself the freedom that your mind rarely allows. All of this list making seems tedious, especially if you’re not a list-maker like myself, but this is a really important step. It’s so easy to get bogged down by all your fears and anxieties that it can seem like you’ll feel this way forever, and you kind of let the idea of wellness just fall by the wayside. You need to be aware that you have hopes and dreams and there is a life you can have that isn’t the one you’ve gotten stuck in right now. If you want you can pin these lists somewhere where you will see them everyday. It never hurts to have a daily reminder of your goals.
Step Two: Get educated.
Now hold up! I don’t mean jump on Google and read every single search result that pops up for agoraphobia. That is a very bad idea, for two reasons – 1. Google is evil when it comes to illnesses, and 2. You will come away from it feeling like shit. One of the first things I tell people when they ask me for advice on panic disorder is do not read about other peoples bad experiences. You end up convincing yourself that whatever happened to them will happen to you. I once read about someone who had a severe side effect from their panic and then that side effect became a huge fear of mine, even though it was something that had never happened to me. By all means, read about the good experiences of others – the only issue with that is that when you google, the good experiences are all thrown in with the bad and you end up reading shit you really don’t need to. So to be on the safe side, just stay away from incessant googling. I know it can seem important to connect with others who have the same issues – and it is important. But it’s also important not to add to your ever-growing list of fears and worries. What you should be doing to educate yourself is getting some motivational material, and that can be in the form of books, podcasts, meditation tapes, etc. Whatever floats your motivational boat. There are plenty of people out there who preach positivity and wellness and those are the people you want to be taking pointers from. Some of my favourite wellness gurus are Louise Hay, Gabby Bernstein, Melissa Ambrosini, and occasionally Eckhart Tolle, although I find my brain melting a little when I read his stuff because there’s a lot going on in it. Wayne Dyer is a great one, too.
Here is a few of the books I read and loved when I was housebound, stuck in bed, and desperately searching for answers.
Step Three: Surround yourself with goodness.
When I was in a really dark place, I found it helpful to get so lost in positivity that I didn’t have time to ruminate over the bad stuff. I would read books. I would look at inspiring pictures and quotes. I would listen to audiotapes and hypnosis tapes and guided meditations. I would watch movies that had a good message, or documentaries about people changing their lives. I made an effort to surround myself with positive messages in the hopes that I would eventually feel that way inside. Another important part of this is to really take note of your self care routine. Do you take care of your body? Do you eat well? Do you get enough rest? Are you always so busy worrying and being fearful that you neglect to look after your basic needs? It’s really easy to treat yourself badly when you feel like crap. It’s easy to use crutches like drugs and alcohol to get by or to numb yourself. In the beginnings of my agoraphobia I would drink every night so that I could get giggly instead of sitting around feeling like the nervous wreck I was. But then that would bite me in the ass the next day, because I’d feel queasy and headachey and then I’d start to worry that I was seriously ill, and my anxiety would sky-rocket. I’ve also touched on how changing my diet helped with my IBS (over in this post), which in turn helped with my anxiety. So if you have any gut issues, start to take care of your body to resolve those issues. It might be helpful at this point to write another list on the ways in which you could take care of your physical and mental self. You might write things like:
- Do yoga (DVD’s or YouTube – Yoga With Adriene is my favourite)
- Practice meditation
- Eat proper meals – include more vegetables and whole foods
- Try to get enough sleep
- Cut out sugar or alcohol, cigarettes or drugs
- Keep a gratitude journal
- Take 10 minutes every morning to reacquaint with your goals
- Learn how to breathe properly – sounds stupid but a lot of anxiety sufferers breathe too shallow
- Watch inspiring and funny movies or documentaries
- Pray, or work to strengthen your faith, if that’s your jam
- Read everyday
Step Four: Get yourself a support system.
I know I said it’s not helpful to Google, and often that can include things like mental health forums and other possible online meeting places. So you might be wondering where on earth you’re supposed to pull this support system from. First and foremost, you should try your family or friends. I know both my family and my friends have been incredibly supportive and helpful to me. However, sometimes even with the best intentions, family and or friends can do more harm than good, or you might just have trouble confiding in them. In that case, the internet/social media can be a great place to find support. I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again – Instagram has a wonderful community of people who are raising awareness for mental health issues, fighting the good fight and helping others do the same. I’ve found motivation and inspiration from all of my followers and those that I follow. There is also a great community of bloggers (cough cough – cue shameless self promotion) and people on YouTube, Facebook, and Twitter. Not only does a support system provide support, but they can also help to hold you accountable. I have found myself many times out in the car, panicking like mad and wanting to bail home, only to remember all those people on Insta who are kicking major agoraphobic ass everyday, and I think – You can do this. You have to do this. It’s also a great way to track your progression, but don’t worry about that just yet. You could also get in contact with helplines – when I was in the throes of PND and was severely housebound, I got in touch with PANDA and it was one of the best things I ever did. So get a support network happening – we’re all in this with each other. On that note – I am always happy to talk. Please feel free to get in touch with me!
Step Five: Start out slow.
If the idea of beating your agoraphobia has you filled with elation which quickly gets replaced by dread – don’t freak out just yet. You don’t have to jump on a plane and travel the world by tomorrow. In fact, just the other night I was thinking about travelling overseas and the mere thought of it had me so instantly wound up that I had to listen to a guided meditation just to calm myself down – so I get it, I’m not there yet either. With mental health it’s all about taking baby steps, not flooding yourself too much too soon where you run the risk of chickening out before you’ve even begun. Set yourself small, achievable goals. Be realistic. If you’ve been housebound for a long period of time, it’s probably not feasible that you’ll be able to book a holiday to Dubai within the next few weeks. I started out with opening the front door. I then went to the letterbox, then a couple of houses down the street, then to the store around the corner, then I went inside the store around the corner. You need to set a goal that is somewhat difficult to achieve, but one that you can do. When you do it, you’ll think – Okay. So I didn’t die. Onto the next. A wonderful woman I follow on Instagram has a goal of doing a walk everyday for 1000 days (And she’s doing brilliantly). You could set a goal of simply standing outside the front door once a day for a week. Then standing in the front yard once a day for a week. Start slowly and you’ll be more likely to stick to it (and more likely to attempt it in the first place).
Step Six: Be kind to yourself.
Remember, you are learning a new skill. Panic disorder and agoraphobia are learned habits. You became accustomed to fearing panic attacks, and now it is a habit to feel that way. It’s going to take some time for you to learn to trust again, and that’s okay. I used to come away terribly from a failed exposure session. I’d cry, I’d feel hopeless, I’d tell myself I was a failure and I’d never get better and I should probably go and drown my sorrows in a large glass of wine. I’ve since learnt that those kind of reactions don’t get me anywhere but right back where I started. You’ve panicked before, and you’ve survived. Yes, it’s been horrible. But you’ve survived. You’re also going to panic again. It might be horrible the next time, and the next, and eventually it won’t be quite as horrible – but you’ll still survive. Panic will not kill you, even though it sure as hell feels like it will. It’s so, so important to remind yourself – daily, if you have to – that you are human and you are trying and you are learning to love yourself and trust yourself instead of hiding yourself away from your own life. If the shit hits the fan and you have a bad experience, or a bad day, or a bad couple of days, revisit the lists you made in the beginning, and your self-care list. Remind yourself why you’re doing this, what you want out of life, and how your agoraphobia is holding you back from those things. Then reach out to your support network. Call a helpline if you need to. Just don’t beat yourself up for trying to face your fears – it’s such a brave thing to do and you deserve props for that, regardless of the setbacks.
That’s all for Part One in this How-To series. In Part Two I’ll be talking about exposure sessions and getting yourself out there. I highly recommend getting stuck into some of the books I mentioned above, because in most – if not all – of them, there is some wonderful (and far more ‘expert’) advice on how to overcome your fears, panic attacks, and agoraphobia.
You can beat this. I’m with you!