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The Blog of John Gibson, PhD

Tip for Coping with Agorophobia

Anxiety tip: Retreat vs. Avoidance

Anxiety and avoidance go hand-in-hand. Where you fine one, you find the other. When I help people reduce or eliminate panic attacks, we often have two goals: reducing the panic attacks themselves, and reducing the accompanying agoraphobia.

A panic attack is an intense state of fear or terror without an obvious external stimulus. When people experience panic attacks over a period of time, they tend to avoid those places where the attacks occurred. When the avoidance gets to a point people have many places they simply refuse to go (e.g., busy traffic, large city, a large supermarket), we give it fancy diagnostic label: agoraphobia.

When you’re trying to break an agoraphobic pattern, it helps to differentiate between avoidance and retreat.

In the former, you avoid a physical place like crazy and try never to come back. In the latter, you may back away, but only because you can’t do it right this moment. The kicker is, with retreat you make agreement with yourself to come back to it. Maybe later today, maybe tomorrow, maybe next week or next month. But sooner or later you come back to it and -- this hard part -- you hold yourself to it.

Some clients will say I’m splitting linguistic hairs. And to degree that’s true. But the truth is, our ability to cope is not static. Some days we are better others: more rested, less stressed, more ready to face challenges, more courageous.

When you are trying to break an avoidance pattern you will most likely not get it right on the first try. You need to try and try again, and keep trying.

So if you approach something you fear, and can’t do it, you can either throw up your hands and give up, or make an agreement with yourself to come back to it. This is really all about building the right mindset. If you simply avoid, you build a mindset of failure. If you retreat, you build a mindset that makes allowances for approximations, false starts, and variable coping patterns. You also build a mindset of self-compassion, which is a critical ingredient in the world of personal change.

Another post for anxiety and/or stress: A natural cure for anxiety and stress: belly breathing.

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