Agoraphobia

Agoraphobia Through the Lens of Neurodiversity: A Personal Account

Key points:

  1. Neurodiversity sheds light on the fact that individuals experience mental health conditions differently based on their unique neurological makeup, including those who identify as neurodivergent.
  2. Agoraphobia, a type of anxiety disorder, can be experienced differently by neurodivergent individuals compared to neurotypical individuals. Sensory overload and social anxiety can exacerbate agoraphobia in neurodivergent individuals.
  3. The experience of agoraphobia for a neurodivergent person is shaped by factors such as difficulty processing sensory information, challenges with executive functioning, heightened social anxiety, and a sense of agoraphobia being closely tied to their neurodivergent identity.

In the past, people thought that anxiety, depression, and phobias affected everyone in the same way. But then, the neurodiversity movement taught us that each person experiences these conditions in their own unique way. So, let’s explore agoraphobia, a type of anxiety disorder, through the lens of neurodiversity. Having, myself been struggling with agoraphobia secretly for decades; I feel it is important to talk about this.

What is agoraphobia?

A fear of places or situations where escape might be difficult or embarrassing characterizes agoraphobia. I steer clear of any area where I would feel entrapped, like a crowded place brimming with people or any form of public transportation. As a result, we can become cut off from the world and find it difficult to be socially active or build and sustain relationships with loved ones.
Agoraphobia can also be part of other mental health conditions, such as panic disorder or social anxiety disorder. It is important to note that everyone’s experience of agoraphobia is unique, and the severity and triggers of this condition can greatly vary from person to person.

Personal Experience

Agoraphobia is a debilitating anxiety disorder that often goes hand in hand with panic disorder. We characterized it by a fear of leaving one’s safe space, such as one’s home or being in situations where escape may be difficult or embarrassing. This fear can lead to avoidance behaviours that can have a severe impact on daily life.

I have been there. I had to force myself to go out and get frightening physical and emotional symptoms. If I gave in, I was stuck inside, unable to pass that invisible force field blocking my doorway to the outside.

It takes an incredible amount of energy and focus to endure the physical and psychological symptoms of a panic attack and mask it pretty much every day.
I have experienced agoraphobia for decades, and it has affected my life in countless ways. Even something as simple as going to the grocery store can cause extreme anxiety and panic. This has led to me developing avoidance behaviours. I use to only go out in the company of my husband or my mother. I got treated with hypnoses that have been permitting me to go out on my own if I stick to a routine, but I cannot go further than the limit of my village. If the way I take every day is no longer available, going through another path is incredibly challenging.
But for me, agoraphobia is not just about fear of leaving the house. It’s also about sensory overload and social anxiety.

As someone who is neurodivergent, my sensory system is more easily overwhelmed than someone who is neurotypical. This can make public spaces, with their bright lights and loud noises, extremely challenging to navigate. It causes me to be hypervigilant, every dog barking, people being loud, and car or truck running sets turmoil inside. During my childhood and my teenage years, I forced myself into uncomfortable situations to slay that invisible monster that gave me no rest.
In addition, my social anxiety can exacerbate my agoraphobia. I worry about being judged or ridiculed by others, and this fear can be overwhelming in situations where there are lots of people around. For a long time, I had this really firm belief that if people knew of my struggle, they would throw me into a mental institution.

The thing is, until my forties, I did not know that I was neurodivergent. I had a problematic childhood. My parents were told by our GP and teachers at school that I was pathologically shy and hypersensitive. So when I was feeling all that sensory overload, I was afraid that I was being abnormal. Everyone could sustain all of that noise, light, and chaos, so why not me? I was incredibly ashamed of my symptoms, both physical and emotional. I had the impression everybody was watching and judging me.
Overall, it’s not just a fear of leaving the house, it’s a complex and multifaceted condition that has affected everyone.

My agoraphobia roots in my neurodivergent identity and how I interact with the world. Agoraphobia is not only a symptom, but it has become an intrinsic component of who I am. I have been battling this affliction for over four decades, and it has become a companion of sorts. My senses may become overwhelmed in chaotic or noisy places, resulting in sudden panic attacks or feelings of anxiousness. And, on top of those more practical obstacles, my anxiety and apprehensiveness of judgement run deep. I may experience a persistent sense of being judged by those around me. I can acutely know of subtle indicators like body language and voice inflexions. These make day-to-day social connections with unfamiliar faces exhausting.

References:

  • “Neurotribes: The Legacy of Autism and the Future of Neurodiversity” by Steve Silberman – This book explores the history and understanding of autism, highlighting the concept of neurodiversity and how it challenges traditional views of mental health conditions.
  • “The Anxiety and Phobia Workbook” by Edmund J. Bourne – Although not specifically focused on neurodiversity, this workbook provides valuable insights and practical strategies for managing anxiety disorders such as agoraphobia. It offers a comprehensive approach to understanding and overcoming anxiety-related challenges.
  • “The Highly Sensitive Person: How to Thrive When the World Overwhelms You” by Elaine N. Aron – This book delves into the experiences of individuals who are highly sensitive to sensory stimuli, providing insights into how their unique neurobiology affects their perception of the world. It may resonate with individuals who experience sensory overload and agoraphobia.

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