AGORAPHOBIA, PANIC, ANXIETY - AND THE DIFFERENCE BETWEEN THEM
I’m not a doctor, I’m not qualified to give medical advice or maybe even any advice, depending on who you ask. I can only talk about how agoraphobia is for me. I am no longer embarrassed to tell people I am agoraphobic. This has spurred many questions and various conversations about anxiety, panic, agoraphobia, and the difference between them. People will ask me about it so they can ascertain if their (insert appropriate moniker here: loved one, friend, family member, boyfriend, girlfriend, husband, wife, sister, brother, cat, hamster) is agoraphobic.
Anxiety, panic, and agoraphobia are not the same thing. Anxiety or panic, to a certain degree, are normal. Everyone has these feelings at one time or another. We were all built with a flight or fight instinct. However, agoraphobia in my case, comes along with anxiety and panic, but it takes things to a whole new level most people haven’t experienced. The definition (thank you Merriam-Webster online dictionary) of these terms may help everyone begin to understand the distinctions:
Anxiety: a fear or nervousness about what might happen OR a feeling of wanting to do something very much (so see, anxiety can be good, too!)
Panic: a sudden overpowering fright; acute extreme anxiety OR a sudden unreasoning terror often accompanied by mass flight (think panic in the streets) OR a sudden widespread fright concerning financial affairs that results in a depression of values caused by extreme measures for protection of property (as securities) OR one that is very funny (no kidding this is the slang definition of panic!)
Agoraphobia: abnormal fear of being helpless in an embarrassing or unescapable situation that is characterized especially by the avoidance of open or public places
Basically, a person can have anxiety or panic or both, and may even flee certain situations, but not be agoraphobic. Where I turned a corner into agoraphobia was when I started to avoid activities, altering how I live. My world got smaller and smaller. It has opened up some in the past few years because I have forced myself to practice going certain places, like grabbing my daily decaf Starbucks, over and over again, until I got used to doing so without my succumbing to gripping panic. However, I am still terrified of things I used to be perfectly comfortable with like traffic, storms, elevators, travel, doctors – the list goes on and on. I rarely go anywhere without thinking about what calamity could happen. I call those my “what if” thoughts. That type of thinking can derail an anxious person, but it can be kept at bay with practice!
For some great information on agoraphobia, from definition to treatment, to coping, and more, visit the Mayo Clinic’s Agoraphobia page