People I’ve known possessed by panic disorder tend to be perfectionists. I’m a recovered agoraphobe as well as a recovered perfectionist and the two are closely connected, as I shall explain.
When I was suffering anxiety at its highest level my “flight or fight” system was on overload and I behaved like an armed guard at the gate, alert to signs of danger. I, of course, thought I was protecting myself by trying to control everything around me, but instead I was maintaining my anxiety by feeding it.
People I met in various agoraphobia support groups over the years as well as folks with anxiety disorders I got to know as a mental health social worker all seemed to have a need to control things. I can understand that, because when you have no control over panic attacks, you want to be in control of something. I started having panic attacks at age 10 and became very insecure. I know now I developed certain rituals and specific needs about then and continued adaptive, controlling behaviors throughout my time with panic attacks.
Hiding in the house is the ultimate controlling attempt, as many an agoraphobe well knows, but most people with panic disorder do other controlling things as well. You are forcing your amygdala to be alert to ever more things when you try to make order within the chaos by creating a bunch of rules. You are now feeding your monster by organizing your kitchen.
Your need to have all your ducks in a row in whatever form your perfectionism takes is giving your alarm system way too much to do. It’s already afraid of panic attacks, and now you’re making it afraid of wandering ducks. See what I mean? I realized that in order to recover I had to start letting go of trying to control things. I had to teach myself to become blasé. It works and it makes sense that it works. The less you have your amygdala doing, the lower the level of adrenaline in your system. Keep lowering the alert levels and eventually you’ll only be afraid of things like the sabre-toothed tiger that started this whole mess in the first place.
If you see yourself here, I advise making a list of things you probably over-control. It may take awhile to do so. As an example, one of my many controlling, perfectionist behaviors was to be a different person for other people and occasions so that I could control the situation and maintain calm: I’d behave blandly around someone excitable and light hearted around someone depressed just to keep a balance. I needed predictability more than absolute order, so I would make an encounter turn out as well as possible by being the person I needed to be at that particular time. A friend finally made it clear one night when he said, “You’re a phony.”
If you’re working on the recovery program in Un-Agoraphobic you already started a journal in which you can make your lists. I advise letting go of controls as you feel safe, enjoying the lightness of that release of pressure. I came across a great piece on the problem of perfectionism, written by Elizabeth Lombardo for the newsletter Everyday Health. As a clinical psychologist and traveling lecturer, she found herself in the trap of constantly striving to improve everything in her life. She offers some sound advice for people who cannot be content with now. I hope you enjoy this read as much as I did. Here’s a link: