Overcoming panic attacks and agoraphobia - Part 2

In response to the first post in this series, some readers wrote and asked what I meant by “embracing anxiety”. It is true that anxiety does not feel pleasant, and we naturally want to avoid it. So why would we want to embrace it?

In regards to agoraphobia and panic disorder, people use the strategy of avoidance to avoid the very unpleasant feelings of panic and anxiety, so they may stay home, or limit their lives to places where they feel safe, where help or escape can be assured should they have a panic attack. This is a completely understandable reaction, because as anyone who has experienced a full blown panic attack can attest, it is a very overwhelming experience, and the natural instinct is to avoid it.

But if recovery from agoraphobia and/or panic disorder is to occur, instead of avoidance, what is needed is to face the anxiety, to act, despite the anxiety.

For people who suffer from agoraphobia, a very anxiety provoking situation might be going to a shopping centre, or using public transport. When faced with these sorts of situations, it is very useful to remember that avoidance provides short term relief from unpleasant feelings and sensations, but it creates long term suffering by keeping you trapped in the anxiety, avoidance, anxiety cycle. It is a little like a person who smokes cigarettes and feels better after a cigarette but the habit is causing them increased stress and suffering in the long term.

Counselling, meditation, and other relaxation strategies may all assist in recovery. Meditation and other relaxation methods can lower anxiety levels and so can assist when changing behaviours. In addition, although the sensations at the height of a panic attack can feel very overwhelming, understanding that you will not lose control of your senses, or whatever else you fear will occur, is also important in giving you the courage to face your fears. Dr Clare Weekes, in her many wonderful self-help books, cautioned readers not to be bluffed by the symptoms of fear into being further afraid, as this is a major factor in perpetuating the problems of agoraphobia and panic disorder.

So how can you possibly “embrace anxiety” when all you want to do is avoid feeling it? With time, as you continue facing your anxiety and reclaiming your life again, it is possible to arrive at a place where you begin to change your view of anxiety. Instead of fearing anxiety, you may come to see your anxiety as an opportunity for growth and healing. As you challenge your anxiety, and yourself, and move beyond your comfort zones, opportunities for more growth and more healing can be found. In the case of agoraphobia it can be easy to feel that things will never change, as it can be hard to find enough stimulation and opportunities for growth within the same four walls. However, there is much hope, as agoraphobia and panic disorder are very treatable and recovery is absolutely possible. But it is not just agoraphobia that limits our potential, this also applies to other aspects of life, including rigid thinking and belief systems. When we do not stretch beyond our comfortable boundaries, growth and life satisfaction can be made more difficult.

Anxiety is an inescapable part of life, and as I have written before, the only way to avoid anxiety is to avoid life. Indeed, existential therapists call anxiety the spark of life, because anxiety alerts us to things we are not comfortable with, and it calls us to action to make some sort of change. Anxiety may demand of us that we remove ourselves from dangerous situations, or it may alert us that something is not quite right in a relationship. So anxiety can be a teacher, alerting us to what we need to change in our lives to live more happily and authentically. Living an authentic life means living a life that is congruent with our values and needs. It is important to say however, that no one lives a fully authentic life, because we live in community with others, and we need to balance our needs with the needs of others in the world.

And just as no one can live a fully authentic life, no one can live a life completely free of anxiety, because, as already stated, anxiety is a normal part of life. We are human. We will have times of anxiety, of sadness and despair, of inadequacy, as well as moments of joy and fulfilment and perfection. Existential therapists say there are “givens of existence”, aspects of life that are inescapable, that will cause anxiety to all human beings. Irvin Yalom named four givens of existence. They are death, aloneness, meaninglessness and freedom. Yes freedom can make us anxious, because with freedom comes responsibility.

It is important to say also that in some situations, we do not want to “embrace” our anxiety. In some situations we need to heed the messages of anxiety and avoid, such as when we are being chased by a wild animal in a forest, or need to leave an abusive relationship, or get a needed medical check-up.

In anxiety disorders however, it is often useful to do the opposite of what our anxiety tells us. For example, if your anxiety tells you to stay home to avoid a panic attack, then do the opposite and go out.

A good rule to follow when deciding whether to listen to your anxiety or not, is to ask yourself, “What would the majority of people do in this situation?”

Thank you for reading this post and stay tuned for the next part in this series which will be posted next month. Best wishes to you.

(c) Voula Augerinos 2016

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