The Fear of Being Afraid

When a thirty-three-year-old woman named Nora had a panic attack in the middle of a grocery store, she felt like she was being strangled. Her heart raced. She felt dizzy. She had no choice but to leave her cart in the middle of the aisle and run for the door and the fresh air outside. It was the first in a series of panic attacks that left Nora wondering whether she would ever feel safe outside of her home again.

“She felt that if she wasn’t careful, she could bring on another attack,” says Raeann Dumont in her book, The Sky Is Falling: Understanding and Coping with Phobias, Panic, and Obsessive-Compulsive Disorders. “An underlying belief of an agora- phobic is ‘I am vulnerable, the world is a dangerous place, and I need someone to take care of me.’”

Agoraphobia, the fear of open spaces, is considered the worst of all phobias. It is marked by nearly nonstop terror that a panic attack will strike. If it does, the person with agoraphobia fears she will not be able to escape the situation that sets off the panic, or if she does manage to escape, she fears that it will be embarrassing. The panic attack might happen on a subway train, for example, where escape is impossible, or it could happen in the middle of a wedding, where escape would be humiliating. Either way, the attack would be horrifying to the person. Agoraphobics are so afraid of panicking unexpectedly that they often feel anxious leaving home at all, even for a short while. Lisa Capps and Elinor Ochs, authors of Construct- ing Panic: The Discourse of Agoraphobia, say that

“agoraphobic persons often describe feeling trapped by an ever-present threat of panic and their belief that they cannot risk leaving safe havens such as home.”

Agoraphobia is a crippling condition. People who suffer from it feel afraid almost all the time. Some are even afraid of being in their own homes by themselves and want a relative or a close friend with them always. The fact that their fear is not logical does not make it go away. They understand that they are not really in any danger, yet they panic just the same. When they become too fearful to even leave home, their lives become very lonely and depressing.

Medical experts are trying to answer the question of what goes wrong in someone’s mind to create this kind of fear. Sci- entists who study human behavior want to know who gets phobias, what causes them, and how they can be treated.