Your fear of crowded places isn’t silly — here’s how to handle it

At a time when it feels as if acts of mass violence are happening all too often, it’s no wonder why Americans are experiencing record high levels of stress and anxiety these days. And if the growing number of terror attacks in recent years has you suddenly feeling anxious in crowded spaces, trust us: You are not alone.

In fact, in January 2017, the American Psychological Association found that Americans are statistically more stressed than ever before, thanks in no small part to the fear of being under attack and anxiety about threats of terrorism.

Whether you’re in a church, a movie theater, a school, or at a concert, the unfortunate reality is that it feels like there are truly no safe spaces anymore, and that fear can leave you feeling understandably anxious to even leave the house, let alone attend an event with big crowds.

If you find yourself avoiding travel or certain events, or going anyway but feeling uneasy, or even suffering from panic attacks as a result, you may be suffering from ochlophobia.

Ochlophobia, known colloquially as the fear of crowds, is a type of social anxiety due to the sufferer literally being surrounded by people, and it’s as much a physical anxiety as it is a mental one.

With the unrelenting news cycle these days and the perceived threat of terror everywhere we go, it’s no surprise why more and more people are feeling afraid to go about their normal activities, from riding mass transit to work to going to concerts. Like many forms of anxiety, the fear of crowds and public places has multiple layers, which makes it difficult to combat with one simple strategy.

Dr. Paula Panzer, psychiatrist and chief clinical and medical officer at the Jewish Board of Family and Children’s Services in New York City recently told The Cut that this fear stems from a person feeling helpless or unable to control what is happening around them. “People are more vigilant and feel less in control of their safety,” she explained. This makes sense, given that you might worry about being able to escape should an emergency arise or being able to remain alert when you’re in a loud, chaotic situation.

Panzer explains that more and more people are feeling the effects of ochlophobia thanks to a heightened awareness of terror threats (we’re lookin’ at you, Twitter!), but she explains that logically, your chances of actually being involved in an act of mass violence are incredibly slim.

"We tend to get really focused and captivated by these really horrific rare events. But how many people do you know who forget to look before they cross the street, or haven’t gotten their flu shot, or don’t put on a helmet when they get on a bike?"

And sure, it might seem like avoiding crowds is the safest response. After all, if you minimize the amount of time you spend in public places, you’re theoretically lowering your risk for something dangerous to happen to you. But this is actually the worst thing you can do.

So much of being in a crowded space involves giving up your control, so it’s totally understandable why it can feel so overwhelming that you’d rather simply stay safe in your home. If you are struggling with a fear of crowds, or have recently noticed you have a lot more difficulty being in public spaces and believe it’s because of a potential threat of violence, the best thing you can do is to find a licensed therapist or counselor that you can open up to about how you’re feeling.

Plenty of therapists will recommend exposure therapy, and unfortunately, this is often the hardest thing to do. Exposure therapy involves — quite literally — exposing yourself to whatever it is you’re afraid of. So if you’re afraid of attending a social event with large crowds or traveling by mass transit, you’ll have to just grit your teeth and do it.

Facing your fears head on is the most challenging way to combat any kind of anxiety, but it’s also the most effective.

If it makes you feel better to look around and mentally design an exit strategy for yourself, then do so. But if doing that creates an all-consuming worry about escape, Panzer recommends avoiding it altogether. “Don’t break your habit, but don’t keep looking again and again, because that doesn’t relax you. It makes you feel worse, like by doing it you’re going to somehow protect yourself.”

There are certainly other coping strategies to try if you’re in a crowded situation and begin feeling panicky. Taking deep, calming breaths can help, as can visualizing something that makes you feel relaxed, like a loved one, a pet, or simply thinking back to a moment where you felt happy and at ease.

And as simple as it sounds, writing down your feelings or telling someone you trust is a quick and easy way to lighten the emotional load for a minute.

The best thing you can do when tackling any kind of anxiety (but especially something as powerful as the fear of crowds) is to be kind to yourself. Your feelings are valid and it’s totally okay to take care of yourself — your comfort and safety should always be your number one priority, no matter what is going on in the news that day.

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