“I know nobody ever got over being afraid of the dark by never turning off the lights.” ~J. D. Ruskin
Agoraphobia literally means, “Fear of the marketplace.” People who suffer from it typically don’t like anything to do with crowds. They don’t like public transportation (buses, trains, ships, planes). They stay away from shops, theaters, movies, stadiums. It’s even difficult for them to stand in long lines or to go outside alone.
Elaine tells me that her agoraphobic patients will wait until 2:00 am to go shopping in a Walmart just to avoid crowds. What better place is there to practice the “Third Option” than a bustling marketplace in a foreign land. In this case, Siracusa, Sicily
Elaine and I spent a second day in Siracusa, mostly just relaxing and adapting to this new world of Italian culture. We took a few strolls along the city streets and sat at a cafe, watching the sailboats tack back and forth in the breeze. We found the morning market packed with fresh fish and produce along with a wide variety of people. Everyone looking, bartering, searching for that special ingredient for their evening meal.
The sounds energized. The voices of the vendors yelling ”CALAMARI FRESCA!” and other loud phrases that neither of us understood. “PREZZO DI LIQUIDAZIONE!” came up a few times. The sounds were mixed with the hum of mopeds and the screams of children running through the maze of moving legs, vegetable crates, and baby strollers. I thought that Elaine’s crowd anxiety would have cut our visit short.
“Are you ok?” I checked in.
“This is wonderful!” she shouted over the din.
“Wonderful? I figured you’d take one look at this place and pull out.”
“No! she shouted, I’m focused on the food. It’s all so fresh. We can never get this back home. ”
“What about the people… the crowds… the ruckus?” I asked, still incredulous.
“Yeah, that was getting to me, but I decided to watch them. If I try to learn from them; how they haggle… what they buy, it’s more like a mindfulness exercise. I’m not judging them, or focusing on myself. She pointed to a vendor grilling some fresh fish and squirting marinade over it, the steam rising with a mouth-watering aroma. “I’m just people watching.”
The sheer variety of exotic foods with unknown names kept us tunneling deeper into the crowd. Clams barely submerged in their shallow basins spitting streams of water across the table. Huge, stark white pigs legs laying on the bloodied butcher’s block. Whole, freshly caught swordfish with their noses pointing up into the air.
Cheeses! Oh my god! There must have been 50 different varieties. There was fresh, wet mozzarella balls wrapped in cloth and tied with a reed of dried grass hanging just above our heads. Dark, hard, aged blocks dappled the tables of dozens of vendors. I could barely pronounce their names, let alone recognize them. We spent two hours wandering the stalls; smelling the herbs, watching the people, squeezing the fresh variety of produce…
I noticed that the rush of people and city sounds were ebbing and I glanced at my watch, it was almost 1:00 pm. Siesta time was fast approaching. Vendors were not yelling as loudly and some were starting to pack their produce back into the their panel vans. Far be it for us to disrespect a local custom. We headed back to our apartment and took a long afternoon nap.
Real-life Tips for Managing Agoraphobia
1. Start small, you don’t have to jump straight into a crowded marketplace for your first time–save that for your “graduate” training in anxiety management.
2. No matter where you begin, practice relaxation breathing to keep you centered no matter where you are (for guidance on this go to our Anxiety Clinic).
3. Start by going with someone who does not suffer from crowd anxiety to help keep you grounded in case your anxiety starts to take over.
4. Go somewhere that has things you like. If you like antiques, go to an antique store. If you like books, go to a book store. If you like food, go to a fresh produce market. It will help you focus on the here and now; you’ll be seeing things you enjoy and that will distract you from physical cues of anxiety.
5. If you have stayed in place for 5 minutes, give yourself permission to leave and come back. Trust your judgment, as long as you commit to coming back and pushing your limits of comfort, take the time you need to make it a pleasant experience.
6. Don’t give up. Even if you leave, it is not a failure. Remember what Babe Ruth said, “It’s hard to beat a person who never gives up.” No effort you make in your anxiety work is ever wasted so long as you keep working it.
7. Avoid turning your anxiety into your enemy. Don’t try to vanquish it by telling yourself “I can’t have this. I must make it go away.” Your physical sensations are still a part of you. Fighting them is like trying to fight yourself.
8. If your anxiety keeps attacking, remind yourself, you don’t have to stop feeling it. It is only that–a feeling, nothing more and nothing less. You don’t have to make it go away, you just have to keep following your dreams.