Guest Blog – Gene’s Journey

(Gene writes from time to time of his experiences on the road to recovery from agoraphobia)

  Yes, You CAN Get There from Here.

I don’t know about you, but where I live winter just won’t quit, spring takes her own shy time arriving and summer, after a brief blaze of relative heat and humidity, fades all too soon, like the tan on an Irishman back from vacation.  Naturally autumn, being my favorite season, lasts the shortest time of all. The frustrating truth is that I’m stuck living where my parents chose to live, not where I want to live. But that is due to change . . . .

A popular adage says to bloom where you’re planted. But this human plant is solar powered and I don’t feel really energized until and unless I’m placed in vigorous sunshine.  So one of my goals (which I’m told are simply dreams toting to­do lists and timetables) is to reside, or at least spend my winters, closer to the sun – say, on a Caribbean island.  The rub is, how to get there from here?  Here being the aggie state of fear of fear, the place where we “travel­challenged” folks hang out. And there being wherever we wish we could be.

There must be a way to close the gap, since other agoraphobes before us have found and followed it to freedom, though perhaps in their own unique way. The path I’ve been taking is comparable to how some bathers enter the cold ocean on a summer afternoon: gradually, by testing the waters with both feet, then wading in up to the waist, then up to the chest and then -WHAM! – the crest of a wave catches them neck high and they surrender to the water and start to enjoy themselves.  Well, that’s how I’m getting to where I want and need to be – by taking regular, deliberate, scheduled steps, however small or scary. (In this way I find the journey to freedom is process, versus an event.)

In Life Unlocked, a book Hal mentions in Un-Agoraphobic, the author, Dr. Srinivasan Pillay, warns us not to mistake the difficult for the impossible.  Just because a thing is hard to do doesn’t mean it can’t be done. If you want to do something badly enough you find a way to do it; you develop a can­do attitude, you drop the “if only I could I would” mentality. As you continue doing, not just dreaming about doing, you start telling yourself that small victories add up to big victories, which add up to the final victory over aggie. So you get there by advancing from one victory to the next, step by step. The effect is cumulative, perhaps exponential in a way, as strength feeds on strength, along with courage, and self-confidence becomes self­perpetuating. (As they say, nothing succeeds like success!)

Further along in Life Unlocked the author quotes another writer who believes that “courage is not the absence of fear but the judgment that something else is more important than fear.” Well, what exactly is this “something else” for you and me if not the freedom to travel where, when, and how we want without letting phobic anxiety stop us?  (We know it’s the anxiety and panic that causes the avoidance that causes the aggie. Eliminate the avoidance and you eliminate the phobia, by definition.) In any event, I am proving to myself every week that taking graduated steps to extinguish the anxiety and panic through exposure therapy is a necessary part of the process of curing myself.  A process which involves the imprinting of new neuronal pathways until ­­ joy of joys ­­ aggie is no more than a shadow of a shadow, just a memory, and a distant one at that.




You Are Both Garden and Gardener

  Lettuce now compare agoraphobia to a garden.  I officially began garden season today by planting some seeds in flats and plastic containers, and for each minuscule form of life I planted in the soil, at least one seed of thought got planted in my brain. Writers who garden are constantly pruning their greenery to harvest similes and metaphors that relate the horticultural arts to one’s life as well as the lives of others.

Gardening is particularly ripe with meaning for those afflicted with panic disorder and agoraphobia. Here, I’ll make up a few metaphors and similes which I hope will help you sprout some of your own.

  1. You have taken root in an area that is restricting your growth.
  2. You have seeds you’d like to sow far from where you are.
  3. You are a fragile seedling that needs particular protection from the elements.
  4. You are a seed, full of potential, but don’t have access to soil where you can truly sprout.
  5. Whenever you try to spread, giant nasty weeds confront you, driving you back to your spot.
  6. When you finally get to bloom, your flower will be the most beautiful display ever seen.

I could go on and on – after all, I’m a writer – but now it’s your turn to think of ways your situation can be compared to gardening. I wrote a blog earlier on how important the season of Spring has been to me through my life. When I was a prisoner of agoraphobia, Spring represented renewal, new growth, new possibilities, and hope. My hostile world, particularly the coldest months, seemed somehow softer and safer when Spring arrived in my home state of Montana.

Because this season is so important to me, I decided to increase my share of it by moving to central Oregon where Spring begins about two months earlier than in Montana.  In some ways, the Willamette Valley is eternal Spring with a touch of 2 or 3 others.

So I planted some seeds today and thought about their future. They didn’t look like much as I gazed upon them nestled in my garden stained palm.  Each tiny seed can reach its potential and become a most magnificent living thing, be it broccoli, carrot or zinnia, only by undergoing a dramatic change. I will be the agent for change – by pushing each seed beneath the surface of dirt and then faithfully watering and fertilizing and nurturing, giving each the best possible chance to become the best it can be.

Now let’s make you the seed and the recovery program in Un-Agoraphobic all the soil, nutrient, water and sunshine you need to become the being you hoped you would. You must now carry out each day devoted to the care and nurturing of this precious new you.  The growth you are undertaking will lead to a dramatic change – complete freedom forever. Have fun. Only a negligent gardener could ruin your chances.

So I Said to My Amygdala…

I like to occasionally refresh memories and acquaint newcomers of just what it is we are talking about when we refer to panic disorder and agoraphobia.  I’ll give my quick definitions and then go over the basic brain science that tells you why you have what you have and how you can get out of it.

My definition of panic disorder is the general state of anxiousness that results from having had one too many panic attacks. Agoraphobia describes the avoidance one employs to feel safe.  After only one PA, your amygdala starts to work against you in a bizarre and not at all helpful way. The guard at the gate for your brain is where all data enters your sensory ports (5 in the norm). That most primitive part of the central nervous system must begin the sorting process for everything that happens to you – each sound, each new image in your eye, each word spoken, read or thought, each thing touched, etc.

Traffic is dispatched to various parts of the brain as amygdala and its memory-making compatriot hippocampus make the crucial choices that make you behave the way you behave by reacting the way you react to any given stimuli.

The amygdala process is nearly instantaneous. If cave dwelling you were out on the savannah gathering nuts and berries and saw a human-eating beast of some sort, you would be in full sprint just like that.  Stimulus=Response=Survival (or not). Your amygdala would have shouted (by sending adrenaline) to all systems and when the amygdala shouts, your systems listen because they could die if they didn’t. You are now essentially a primitive beast with momentary power, speed, strength and will to do things you could not ordinarily do.  There are witnessed, documented incidences of ordinary people lifting cars off people while in full adrenaline fury.

That’s what’s happening to you when you have a panic attack. You are scared to death.  Period.  After you have a panic attack your amygdala undergoes neural activity to increase its capability to detect future danger. That activity is what we call “anxiety.”  Gray matter builds in the area providing more and more guards to spread the word if that dangerous thing happens again.  This is like military preparedness, where a country (you) sends armies by the thousands to a certain area to protect against threats. Everybody’s pacing about and anxiously perseverating about the enemy.  Only there’s no enemy.

I was age 10 when something I don’t recall startled me one night, sending me into my first horrible panic flight.  The unexplained and unexplainable incident left me feeling anxious most of the time for probably six months or so. That was the effect of my amygdala having gone into high alert.  My high alert state was, unfortunately, making it more likely I’d have another panic attack.

I had another attack cycle at age 12, again at age 14 and 16, and just after my 19th birthday had a panic attack that made me agoraphobic for the next 30 years.  I returned to being fearless a few months after each of the childhood panic cycles, but the one at 19, while on a road trip, was the final straw. I yielded to the power of my muscular amygdala and from then on had to be close to whatever constituted “safety.”

The word “irony” seems almost lame to describe what is happening to a person with panic disorder.  Your amygdala thinks that your panic attack was a grizzly bear attacking you and is now “protecting” you by putting all systems on alert for another one of those…those….  Let’s let Amygdala explain away what it was that caused your most recent panic attack:  “It must have been a huge bear of some kind because I was really really scared and opened the flood gates. The heart was beating like a jack hammer and the lungs were going in and out like a bellows and all the muscles were pumped up and the brain was whirling with activity. Gosh it was exciting! Did anyone see where the bear went?”

Here’s where you take your first step in your recovery from panic disorder and agoraphobia. You grab the amygdala around the throat and scream, “It wasn’t a Bear you Idiot!  It was nothing!! You terrified me for NOTHING!!

After you let the amygdala know that you know what’s up, you can begin in my book Un-Agoraphobic the daily activities, studies and practices that will create new neural pathways working for you instead of against you.  After a period of time of regular and vigorous work sessions as laid out in my recovery program, you will achieve a state of mind that makes it seems like you’re in a safe place.  The amygdala can now walk the perimeters of your awareness and announce, “The place seems pretty secure. I don’t see any bears, so I guess I can start laying off some guards.

That will be your happy day

Guest Blog – Kate Carries On

(Kate is our newest guest  blogger and will be supplying us with her perspective on the stubbornness of agoraphobia. Here is her introduction of herself:)  “Hi there my name is Kate.  I live in Toronto, Canada and am closer to 50 than 40, a business owner, wife, mother, daughter and sister.  I have survived agoraphobia for nearly 25 years and tried multiple therapies and medications to treat this disorder.  I read Hal Mathew’s book Un-Agoraphobic and enjoyed the creative recovery plan he laid out so simply. I am thankful for the opportunity to share my experiences with you.”

                                                   Uncle Jack Comes for Dinner

This past weekend we invited Jack, a recently widowed uncle of my husband’s to come for dinner.  We hadn’t seen him in years and he isn’t a particularly favourite relative of my husband’s.  On my urging I encouraged him to reach out to Uncle Jack as he had been with his beloved wife Nell for over 50 years.  He is a simple, uncomplicated man who is a little rough around the edges but I always enjoyed his company.

When he arrived he was much older looking and thinner than I remember.  And although we haven’t seen each other in person for some time we had maintained communication through holiday phone calls and birthday cards. The awkwardness of not seeing each other passed and Uncle Jack sat down and we talked about politics, the economy, real estate and of dear Nell.  My husband stayed busy in the kitchen cooking a roast of beef while I maintained the conversation.  Jack talked of Nell in the present tense and I felt so badly for him, truly sympathetic to his loss.

On the couch opposite to me, Uncle Jack broke down in tears.  I let him cry without verbal interruption as he explained how the most difficult time for him was after dinner, the silence and the dread of trying to get to sleep.  I gave him a hug after he finished and we sat down at the table to eat.

After regaining his composure, Uncle Jack narrowed his eyes and laid into me. “You still have all your problems?” He asked sourly.

“Yes, but I have been doing well and went downtown last year!” I tried to keep it upbeat and positive.

“Well if you can go downtown, you can come to my house!” He replied hurt.

This is where I turn and start reciting a variation of my much used dissertation. “Jack, it’s not that I don’t want to come to your house and be with you.  I would love to see your garden again, I remember it was beautiful. But, when I get in a car it is like a war is going on outside.  Logically I know it’s not, but that’s what my brain is telling me is happening and it feels as real as if I were a soldier at war.”

I am used to “digs” like this.  I have experienced them from other mother’s after missing a school concert or anxious couples who want me to attend their weddings or other wives pitying my poor husband for having to live with a woman who never goes anywhere.

Over the years of growing up and maturing with an agoraphobic skin, I am now more transparent with people about my feelings.  But, it will never cease to boggle me how non-sufferers assume that if you can walk and talk, not bleeding or in a cast that you are just fine and can’t possibly have anything wrong with you.

Uncle Jack left thankful for the dinner.  But, I think he may boycott visiting us again until I go see his garden.  He might be waiting a long time.

Wise Up!

When I was on the hunt for something, anything, to clear up the mystery of my panic attacks and near constant anxiety, what I was actually seeking was wisdom.

Since I didn’t know what I was looking for, it took me a long time to find it. The survival tactics learned during 30 years with agoraphobia were part of my path toward wisdom. I was becoming a wise person in certain ways; I was learning enough to be able to make the right decision and take the right course because of my variety of experiences in a certain area. For example, I tried nearly every kind of therapeutic med until I gained enough wisdom to realize there isn’t a med to cure panic disorder.

I finally used all the wisdom I gained over the years from shrinks and therapists, psychiatric wards, many kinds of medication including alcohol, homelessness and despair, failed jobs and relationships, to understand the big picture regarding my agoraphobia. Of course I knew – every agoraphobe knows – that a panic attack presents no real danger, but fear is a stubborn bitch that won’t let go easily.

What finally led to my passage into freedom was the profound realization that I was my own center, my own safety net, that I was all I needed to rely on for a feeling of safety.  I had gained enough wisdom to understand that there was no “place” of safety other than what was in my brain. When I comprehended that “safety” lay within me rather than outside of me, as in my apartment, I achieved a level of wisdom that set me up for my spontaneous trip away from home… away from the prison of agoraphobia.

You are gaining knowledge in your struggle to overcome panic disorder that will eventually make you wise enough to be free forever from your own prison. What you are trying to achieve is the understanding that you are taking your safety zone with you wherever you go. That is knowledge leading to wisdom that will free you.

Here’s an article about knowledge and the transit to pure wisdom by fellow Psychology Today blogger Jeremy Sherman that set me to thinking about my continuing journey. I hope this read is helpful to you as it was to me.


Guest Blog – Gene’s Journey

(Gene is a fellow agoraphobe who will be reporting in from time to time on his long struggle and his recent successes) 

Going Far With the Right Connections

Rack up another victory in the travel log! (FWIW I keep a journal of my trips for several reasons: it’s a tangible record of my successes, thoughts and feelings; it inspires me to keep up the momentum of my exposure therapy; and it serves to remind me, when I get discouraged, that I am making progress, however fitfully, towards freedom from unfounded fear.)

To continue . . . am back home from my latest “road work” today and thought I’d share a few insights on the subject of connection in the hope you find them helpful in your own journeys.

I can distinguish between three kinds of connection in this regard. (BTW now I know why Hal stresses “connection, connection, connection is so important” in his book! The first kind of connection has to do with staying connected to your physical surroundings while you’re traveling. Why is this critical–and potentially even curative? Because observing and studying your surroundings in an objective way, taking in and enjoying or at least experiencing the passing scenery and your place in it, greatly helps to ground you (literally!) in the here and now. And why is this important? Well, for one thing, for me the feeling of being dangerously “way out here” arises from the belief I’m disconnected from my source of perceived safety “back there.” Thus my mind, courtesy of the Amygdala & Co. outfit in my brain, wants to fixate on getting me back home, back to the comfy Land of the Familiar. Replacing or eclipsing that location with the current view in front of me–be it persons or places of interest–helps to anchor me in objective reality while at the same time disconnecting me from the unreality (that is, the delusion) inherent in aggie. In other words, paying attention to my suroundings turns my mind towards what is really real, as opposed to what only FEELS real–that crazy aggie fear.

The second kind of connection, intimately related to the first kind, is staying connected in a time sense. It is practicing being wholly present in the holy present. More and more I find it’s an effective antidote to the “what-if” bug that spawns so much of the futurizing and attendant catastrophizing that plagues us agoraphobes. “What is happening right now?” “Am I alive and breathing and functioning OK right now?” “Right now, am I in danger or just in discomfort?” “Am I remembering to recite my affirmations to myself, stay loose, stay distracted, and breathe properly in time to defuse any mounting anxiety or at least ride out a panic attack?” I think these are the kind of questions that we need to ask ourselves and keep asking ourselves every so often as we’re traveling.

The third kind of connection I can see is connection to one’s self. Each victory increases my self-confidence, which increases my self-esteem, which further increases my self-confidence . . . in a virtuous circle. The more self-confidence I exhibit in my willingness and ability to do the work of recovery (via exposure therapy) the better I feel about myself and the stronger and freer I become. And the closer I get to uncovering the real me, the person presently “behind bars,” so to speak, imprisoned by fear. For me this person is–or has been–a frustrated world traveler and explorer. An intelligent risk-taker, a curious discoverer, a confident adventurer. It’s the me who growls, “My brain got me into this mess in the first place (for whatever reasons of self-protection) and it can just as well get me out of it!” Amen to that.

So connection to the environment we’re in or traveling through, connection to the here and now, and connection to our real self are some of the “right connections” that can help us to move forward in our quest to live an aggie-free life.




Drawing On Your Serenity

I know of a way to help you make some significant progress in your recovery from chronic panic attacks. I want you to start making a daily deposit in your memory bank of a calm, focused, period of time when you are so fully engaged in an activity or project that anxiety disappears or is forgotten for the moment. When you establish your daily routine of “mindful” activity, I want you to start observing and taking note of what is going on with you during these periods of time so you can get accustomed to the feeling and make it easier to slip back into that space.

Once your memory-making center starts getting a regular dose of calm feelings, you’ll find that new neural pathways are being formed, making it easier and easier to “feel the feeling” whenever you need to. I’ll give you a couple of examples of times when your focus takes away absolutely everything else.  Think of looking up a number in a telephone book with that teensy type, or for something in a long list or for something you’ve lost around the house.  Anytime you’re engaged in a search for something you need, you mostly tune out everything else.  I’m sure you can think of many things you do for a tiny period of time when nothing else is going on in your psyche.

When you get to that zone for an extended period, take note of how things seem around you – and how you fit in. Take note of everything – your breathing rate, your posture, the feel of your hands, arms and shoulders.  Do you feel loose and comfortable, or at least more so than usual?  What does your mind feel like when it’s not racing away with anxious notions? You don’t have to write these sensations down, just feel them fully and remember them.

Now I want you to discover something you can do every day for an hour or more that will require all your attention while you’re doing it. My book, Un-Agoraphobic, contains a section on learning a new skill to provide a daily session of meditative activity. If you’re already engaged in learning a new skill, you know what’s up. If you’re not, and you don’t have something in your life that takes the kind of focus I’m describing, I want you to start drawing.

Learning to draw saved me during a particularly stressful time in my life. I started doing it as pure diversion, but soon discovered the process of learning to draw was actually healing me. On my very first outing of serious drawing, two hours disappeared…. just like that. I was gone for two peaceful, serene hours during a period in my life of fairly high anxiety.  I became pretty good at drawing because it felt so good  I did it every day. Drawing is good therapy. It teaches you to see things in an entirely new and engaging way.

Starting tomorrow, set up a little still life of stuff around you – like your shoe and a cup and an apple or a small box or book. Get some copy paper and any old pencil and start at one point in the arrangement of things before you and just let your eye stay right on the line as your pencil and hand and eye work together to re-create exactly what your eye is seeing onto that piece of paper. It doesn’t have to look good at all. That’s not the point. The point is fully engaging your attention on the line of that box as it goes up and then away from you at its topmost and then at a slight angle to your right and on and on. You’ll make straight and curvy and broken lines, but there’s always a line and it’s your job to follow it wherever it goes and tell your hand how to replicate what your eye and brain are doing. Keep the graphite on the paper and keep the line moving in a flowing way.  Draw exactly what you see. The process is fascinating.

Tomorrow morning when anxiety starts on a roll, go to your memory bank for a withdrawal of centered feelings like you had yesterday when you were gone to a very specific time and place. You don’t even have to start doing something; all you have to do is recall the feeling you remember so well.