According to pop culture, agoraphobia is a general fear of going outside, and it strikes an unusual number of detectives, criminologists, and authors. It’s one of the more inexplicable phobias out there. After all, we’re all a little nervous about, say, spiders, clowns, or enclosed spaces — phobic people are just a little more scared of them than normal. But it’s impossible to imagine being afraid of, well, everything in the Universe outside your front door. Unless, of course, you’ve been there.
The truth is that it’s not merely a phobia — it’s a physical illness that can be treated, though it’s not as simple as taking a pill. To try to figure out this poorly understood condition, we talked to psychologist Dr. Paula Levine and two people with agoraphobia, Christie and Blaise. They said …
Hemera Technologies/AbleStock.com/Getty Images
If you know the word “agoraphobia,” you probably think of it as that weird, superstitious fear of going out into public places. Drag a sufferer out to the mall, and they’ll have a physical panic reaction bad enough that they can actually lose control of their bodily functions. The literal meaning is “fear of the marketplace,” but that’s more of a misnomer than calling Budweiser the King of Beers. As Dr. Levine points out, it is in fact the fear of having that panic attack — specifically, having one in a public place and not being able to escape or get help. These are people who have had said attacks before, and their fear comes from hard experience. If that sounds like a ridiculous paradox (“So they’re afraid of becoming afraid?”), well, welcome to the world of the agoraphobic. It’s a cruel, self-sustaining cycle of anxiety over the prospect of getting anxious.
So it’s not about a fear of the outdoors; it’s about shame. It’s a fear of having a meltdown in front of other people. That’s what makes the hobbit lifestyle attractive to the agoraphobic. Many restructure their lives so they can justify staying in, whether that’s by getting a job where they can work from home, cutting themselves off from society completely, or in Christie’s case, moving back in with mom and dad. “My parents helped me — initially by going to the shop for me, but [later] by accompanying me to places so that I felt like I had a little bit more support if I needed it.”
Now imagine the life of a sufferer who doesn’t have someone as understanding as Christie’s parents to help them along. Those are the people who lock themselves away. Forever.
And it’s not as if becoming a shut-in fixes the problem. As Dr. Levine explains, panic attacks are like Go-Gurt — you can have one anywhere, and they always suck. “Staying home doesn’t mean you’re not going to have another panic attack. But that’s what the mind does. The mind tries to make sense of a very surprising, out-of-the-blue [phenomenon].” Making a quick exit from the stressful situation provides relief. And so staying at home essentially means making camp in the second half of fight or flight mode. “What agoraphobics unfortunately do, which starts and maintains the phobia, is run. They flee the minute they feel panic beginning to mount. So they associate the flight and the feeling of relief with ‘That’s what I have to do to maintain my peace of mind.'”
And the more time you spend at home, the scarier the outdoors seem. So what is triggering these panic attacks in the first place?