Wanna Read Some Real Brain Science?

I write extensively in Un-Agoraphobic about your amygdala’s role in your panic attacks and how you can re-train the #%#!&@&!#! traitorous false alarm-creating organ. (Now, now Hal – remember: every month is “Be Kind to Your Amygdala Month” from now on.)  Sorry. I forgot for a second there that I’m not mad at my amygdala like I was when trying to survive the daily lightning storms caused by I knew not what. I never even heard the word “amygdala” until many many years after I started having panic attacks – age 10.

I’ve done a lot of reading about the amygdala’s role in our misfortune and have written about it in blogs and in my book. I like to think I provide information to people like a journalist who doesn’t have to follow all the grammar and order rules, just the truth rule. I hope you are able to understand more about brain science as it relates to you as I’ve written about it in the book. I do, however, write in kind of easy going, casual Hal language – sort of the opposite of scientific writing.

I came across some scientific writing recently about studies done on the amygdala’s role in panic attacks.

You might occasionally come across a string of words that might cause you to rupture a synapse if you try to wade through them. Stop and breathe. They’re only words and the people who wrote them aren’t necessarily all that much smarter than us – they just have specific knowledge and know bigger, cooler words and how to use them. Here are some links:






The Four Seasons of Agoraphobia

I recall having a paradoxical relationship to the four seasons back in the bad old days with agoraphobia  when my anxiety level was particularly high. I started feeling better in the late Fall when leaves reign and days grow shorter. Some people experience a downturn in their emotions – a feeling of weight from lack of sunlight. “SAD” is its accurate acronym – seasonal affective disorder. Many others are somewhat depressed by shorter days. I, on the other hand, welcomed the comfort of a world closed in rather than wide open. I started to cheer up in mid-September

I don’t know if this is true for all agoraphobes – it was for some I talked to in peer support groups. I felt more anxiety on long, clear,  blue sky days than when clouds were low and dark and days were short. I  loved darkish, cloudy days when I was most anxious because I felt somewhat sheltered or protected or contained. Wide open spaces were terrifying for me. I never looked up at the night sky when I was anxious. Give me a smaller space please. A darkish, cloudy day feels like a smaller space.

So that covers two seasons: I dreaded Summer‘s constant wide open sky and embraced Autumn‘s clouds and shorter days. Winter’s tale was long and complicated. On one hand, I felt the comfort of often cloudy skies and less time in wide open space that I could see. I never ever looked up at stars after doing so once set me off on a terrible period of panic attacks as a teen.  Darkness was also my friend. The downside to Winter for me had to do with crowds and transportation. Stores and travel about town are difficult enough for anxiety ridden folks but when Christmas crowds and all that traffic begins, going to a store or trying to make a quick auto trip can be a horror story. Spring had dual effects on me as well. I joined many others in the relief from cold temperatures that March brings, but I also felt my anxiety level rise – always in late March. I think the increased light was too much stimulus for me and I hated coming to this part of the year. After the Equinox period, I would get a wonderful break from constant anxiety by the joy of Spring.  

After that period of relative elation, the greening and flowering and sex of the world, I would begin to get the long, clear-day yips again, longing for a return to the comfort of less light. If I hadn’t been agoraphobic I would have moved to a cloudy climate area, but if I hadn’t been agoraphobic I wouldn’t have needed or wanted to. See how that works? The four season of agoraphobia.

Your Very First Suitcase

If your agoraphobia began early in life – for me it was age 19 – you may have yet to purchase your very own luggage. Who needs a suitcase when you can’t travel more than a few miles away from home – if that far? I probably used family suitcases for trips in my youth before a rather savage recurrence of panic attacks early in my sophomore year of college made me too frightened to travel more than the few blocks I lived from campus. And I wouldn’t travel freely again for another 30 years.

I clearly remember my first suitcase. I didn’t want to buy something shiny new and have people think this is the first time I took actual trips far off into the world. I hunted through second hand stores until I found the perfect statement.  It was a tan, heavy canvas thing with leather trim that folded out sort of like a wardrobe and had lots of cool side pockets. It made me look like a man who’d been abroad, or at least around.

With that suitcase I made a trip back to my parent’s house, my home, that I hadn’t been able to visit for 3 decades. The mountainous trip from Helena to Billings is stunningly beautiful. The first part trails the Missouri River to its origin – where the Madison, Jefferson, and Gallatin Rivers (all named by Lewis and Clark) combine near Bozeman (Three Forks).  Soon after that on the winding, climbing, descending freeway, the legendary Yellowstone River emerges from its namesake national park through Paradise Valley and announces itself to the world as it winds its way beside the highway through  geology ranging from mountainous to hilly to sandstone rimrocks and buttes.  Towering cottonwood trees suckle at its flanks the entire journey through Montana to where it joins the Missouri clear the heck over on the east end of the state. The soaring, glistening Absaroka Mountain Range and then the Beartooth Range, highest in Montana, are your constant companion on your right on that particular stretch of I-90. I was driving on an interstate highway for the first time in my life.  The previous, pre-agoraphobia times I traveled across the state, the massive national highway construction program was just underway.

I had already made months earlier my initial Very Big Trip from Helena to Butte 60 miles away to officially end my agoraphobia. And then I made the 2 hour trip from Helena to Missoula many times as I moved back to my favorite place in the whole world. But the trip from Helena to Billings was another matter – longer at 3 hours, and at times the openness – one of my panic triggers – goes on and on. Luckily I was in a state of awe the whole journey and pretty much didn’t have any anxious times. For this trip, where I was actually going to stay a few days I needed a suitcase.  And after that I took on many sorts of traveling bags as I came across them in thrift shops for my many trips to follow.

The final symbol of freedom from agoraphobia is a large suitcase with wheels, which I now possess. It’s red,  second hand, and large with many zippered nooks and crannies. The wheels say it all: I am a person who travels freely so much that I need wheels on my suitcase.

I’m certain you’re excited to take your first trip away from agoraphobia with a suitcase. Perhaps you should go ahead and buy a suitcase now so it’ll be there on that glorious day when you’re ready to take a long trip with luggage. I know! You can put it at the foot of your bed and call it your “hope chest.” Get it? Sometimes I am so brilliant in an ad agency way I scare myself.

You’ll get there, I promise. Work hard every day on your Recovery Program in Un-Agoraphobic and you will put it all together and solve your mystery with my vast knowledge and experience guiding you along.

If wheels on a suitcase make you look or feel old, try a couple of shoulder bags for a hip-ness  in your new traveling look.

Bragging on Myself

I got some good news about my book Un-Agoraphobic recently: a nicely positive review by Library Journal. This is a prestige publication that goes out to over 17,000 subscribers including most libraries and publishers. If libraries make their purchasing decisions based on such reviews, I could be widely available. How about that?!

The book has been in bookstores and Amazon for a little over a week, so it’s too early to tell much about sales. I’m hoping nearly everyone with panic disorder will hear about it eventually because I know it will help folks overcome this madness forever. I’m also writing for Psychology Today’s website as well as the newsletter Mindbodygreen.  My first article there, “Who’s Afraid of the Agoraphobic Wolf,” is appearing in their issue 10/9.

Writing to help people recover from chronic panic attacks is taking over my life in a good way. Saying that Un-Agoraphobic is the best book yet written on the subject of recovery from panic attacks and agoraphobia is bragging, of course, but I’ve read everything I could find on the subject and none of the other writers have proposed a structured, holistic, inclusive, compassionate program like mine. Most of the other writers in this field are professionals – therapists and doctors, and the few who write about recovery from a personal viewpoint are missing the clinical experience I had as a mental health social worker. Plus I’ve written professionally much of my life.

Here it is, Ta Da – my first review:

Library Journal review:

Mathew, Hal. Un-Agoraphobic: Overcome Anxiety, Panic Attacks, and Agoraphobia for Good; A Step-by-Step Plan. Red Wheel Weiser. Nov. 2014. 256p. bibliog. ISBN 9781573246392. pap. $18.95; ebk. ISBN 9781609259655. SELF-HELP

Using his own experience and what he’s learned in support groups and counseling sessions, journalist Mathew sets out to assist victims of agoraphobia overcome their panic attacks and anxiety. After giving basic information about the condition, he proposes a highly structured hour-by-hour plan for each day, which entails journaling, performing relaxation exercises, learning a new skill, and rewiring one’s brain. One of the keys to healing is practicing visualization techniques specifically designed for overcoming anxiety and panic. The author’s advice on seeking help from therapists and lawyers as well as dealing with partners and bosses rounds out the text. VERDICT Mathew not only delivers assurance to those suffering from panic attacks and agoraphobia but provides a way through difficult situations.