Guest Blog – Kitty’s Progress

(Kitty has been pinned down by agoraphobia for a few years, but reports she’s been making significant progress lately. She’ll write about her progression from time to time here as a guest blogger)

My name is Kitty. I’ve suffered from agoraphobia since 2012 and struggled with panic attacks since 2007. Now I’m in the process of recovering from agoraphobia. I’m 30 years old and live in California. In my spare time, I like to play video games and read. When I recover from agoraphobia, I hope to be able to play Dungeons and Dragons with a group again.

My panic attacks manifest as nausea with fear like I’m on a crashing airplane.
I’ve learned several ways to cope over the years. Sometimes during a medium level panic attack, calling a loved one who can get me talking long enough that I forget I’m having a panic attack makes it go away. White noise helps clear my mind a lot of the time. I use an app called White Noise by TMSOFT. I also always keep a reusable bottle of ice water with me because anxiety gives me terrible dry mouth.

Since implementing the Un-Agoraphobic program, I’ve started to do small outings. My most common errand is grocery shopping. When I fear having or already am having an attack during these outings, I remind myself that I’ve completed this task while having panic attacks before and nothing bad has ever happened to me. My body is lying to me. I’m in no danger. I also listen to white noise on my headphones sometimes. I think that my tipping point was when I switched from feeling sorry for myself to being angry at the agoraphobia and started doing things in defiance of it. Going out with the knowledge that I’ll probably have an attack, but I’ll survive.


Where Are You Right Now?

  I repeatedly stress to sufferers of panic disorder that learning to meditate and to perform your daily activities with full, mindful focus is what will lead you out of the morass you’re in. I can’t think of a better model for explaining the importance of living in the present than Eckhart Tolle.

Tolle (tolay) is the German Canadian author of “The Power of Now” who reports he spent much of his early life in deep depressive despair. He says he was in a very dark time  when, at age 29, he had a transformation – he realized he could live his life in bliss just by living every moment completely immersed in the time called now.

I have a chapter in my book on engaging in mindful activities as well as meditation in order to steer your mind clear of the anxiety-provoking future and the depression-invoking past. Focusing every day on your recovery program is what I give you as a way to work always in the present moment.  I had to learn how to escape the all-consuming presence of anxiety for at least brief periods of time so I could know what I was searching for.  I know that getting into a clear state of mind was what allowed me to be creative – to invent ways to heal myself.

The reason I think Tolle is so brilliant at helping folks learn this vital skill, or habit, or way of being, is that he, when you see and hear him, is the perfect embodiment of peace and joy. His sweet face and compassionate manner are the result of being always here instead of back there or on up there.  I have watched hours of youtube vids on meditation and living in the present, and somehow get the most help from Tolle.

I’m giving you a link to a vid that will help you see what he’s about, and you will see many more presentations from him on a variety of subjects.  Do what he tells you and what I tell you and you will free yourself from your own prison.

PTSD and Panic Disorder – the Big Difference


I get asked from time to time about the difference between “panic disorder” and “post traumatic stress disorder.”  I know about panic disorder from personal experience and PTSD from association as a mental health social worker. The definition of the word “trauma” is what separates the two anxiety disorders.

I developed PD as a result of having had one too many panic attacks. My first attack was at age 10, and I had episodes of panic attacks at various times during my youth. The one I had while traveling at age 19 was the topper – the one that turned me into someone so frightened of having another terrifying panic attack that I avoided travel for the next 30 years. What I experienced was a trauma. My traumatic event was a panic attack over essentially nothing. There was nothing real to frighten me, but the experience of the attack traumatized me.

Someone with clinical PTSD truly experienced something horrific. The person saw, heard, felt, smelled something that triggered their “fight or flight” system to become constantly alert to any new dangers. I had people on my caseload who were struggling with the symptoms of PTSD, the result of everything from wars to accidents to assault and abuse.

The “trauma” of having a panic attack is obviously vastly different from the “trauma” of a land mine or a vicious beating or a horrific accident, but the effects can be similar.  The hyper vigilance of a person diagnosed with PTSD is, from a brain mechanics point of view, much like the state of anxiety one feels fearing the effects of yet another panic attack. In both cases, severe anxiety can force the person into avoidance as a means of survival. Both disorders can create “agoraphobia.”

As horribly frightened as I was by panic attacks many times over the years, my suffering cannot compare to the suffering of someone who hears and sees the terrifying cause of their mental illness in dreams and flashbacks. That sort of agony is beyond my comprehension.

One similarity of PD and PTSD is that in many cases the actual “threat” is not present – the fear is of a reappearance or a recurrence. In both cases, treatment requires a re-programming of the amygdala-controlled alarm system. My program in Un-Agoraphobic can lead anyone to overcoming chronic panic attacks through specific activities and processes. Intensive psychotherapy may be required to help a PTSD victim cope with and learn to live with the specific memories.

Here’s a link to an excellent (and readable) scholarly article on the role of the amygdala in anxiety. The Biology of Mood and Anxiety Disorders is a good place to do research on your disorder.


Guest Blog – Kate Carries On

(Kate is a guest blogger from Canada who writes from time to time of her work on overcoming agoraphobia and its effect on her as wife, parent and businesswoman)

Season’s Change

This winter as many of you know, especially those of you living in the eastern half of North America, was colder and snowier than anything we have experienced in years.

Winter has always been a difficult time for me.  The time change, temperature change, shorter days and lack of sun make me fall into SAD (Seasonal Affective Disorder) very easily.  But worse for me is the lack of mobility.

This winter has been one of the worst I can remember and when I look at my agenda compared to last year’s agenda I am down about 75% “going out” ability.  I rely heavily on my bicycle to either ride or balance my walking, to get me out of the prison of my house.  I drive very little in the winter.  I will take it out of the driveway a couple of times during the week and drive a few blocks but that’s about it.  I do it only for the purpose of getting in the car and driving – not to get anywhere.

I live in a bike friendly city but this past February the snow and cold kept coming and never thawed and I was only able to manage going out for dinner once.  At least it was once and better than not at all! But the snow mounds act as a claustrophobic barrier and the ice encrusted roads are not overly bike tire friendly.  So, I have felt particularly trapped this winter as many of us have. I am full of shame and guilt that I can’t just get in my car and drive down to Florida for a break or hop on a plane for that matter.

One of the trickiest parts of the transitions of seasons for me has been the “start-go-stop” cycle.  Now that it’s spring, I will be enthusiastic about the thaw and the budding crocuses.  I will drive more, be with friends more, attend functions more and do regular day to day things more.  It’s an awakening I look forward to each year.  However, I will be good for a few months until the oppressive heat and humidity of July and August hammers down and drives me back indoors to the air conditioned comfort of my living room until September when I resume my going out activities until January when I shut down completely and just want to hibernate until spring.

This “start-go-stop” cycle drives me batty because I can go and go, achieving real headway in my recovery process during the fair-weather months and then the change in season kidnaps me and keeps me hostage until the weather changes.  It feels like learning how to walk all over again every few months.

I have wondered what it would be like to live in a more temperate climate like Hal mentioned in his book Un-Agoraphobic.  There are very few options for moving within Canada where you don’t have to experience winter. Next year in January, I will sign up for an online university course or two to keep me motivated throughout the winter and as an assurance that I will be far too busy to be spending the winter in Florida.

The Fake Sanity Clause*

I have more than once pretended to be happy about something or another in order to please or at least placate someone else, but it turns out I could also fool myself by faking it.

Brain scientists have shown that focusing on and repeating any thought, action or behavior stimulates the brain into creating new neural pathways in order to facilitate that process. It makes sense to me; it’s sort of like you start lifting weights and after awhile it gets easier because your muscles get bigger and more efficient.

If you suffer from panic disorder you have evidence close at hand proving the brain will pay attention to whatever you want to focus on at that particular time. You have subconsciously and consciously informed your central nervous system that you are in some sort of danger, so the system gears up to be ready whenever the “danger” occurs. That’s why you’re nervous. You are tense and tight and hyper-vigilant because your amygdala thinks something bad is going to happen without warning.

Your high level of anxiety of course makes it much more likely you’ll be startled or stimulated which will trigger a flood of adrenaline that creates the extreme feeling of terror we call a “panic attack.” The bad thing happening is happening because you programmed yourself to be on the look out for fear. It’s not something you were necessarily doing on purpose, but because the feeling of being in danger (from a panic attack) creates new thought pathways, pretty soon you’re stuck with being a nervous wreck.

Luckily, your brain will do pretty much anything you want it to, even feeling calm and at ease. You can totally reverse your current situation though the response may be slow in coming. There’s lots to undo and redo, but you can do it. I set up a daily work program in my book, Un-Agoraphobic to accomplish that very thing – to set the brain in motion with positive thoughts and and activities. Creating new neural pathways that relate to safety and comfort and happiness is what will help you recover from panic disorder and agoraphobia.  To start it off, all you have to do is smile, as you’ll learn in the following article.

*A nod to the Marx Brothers

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.