Shrinking World Syndrome

Abs - March 7, 2017

On my way to my friend Wendy’s wedding, I had the mother of all anxiety attacks: dizziness accompanied by severe nausea. The decision to pull over and curl into a ball until the episode passed was hardly a choice; needless to say, I did not make it to the wedding. In fact, I didn’t even make it back home—I was so exhausted from the panic, I had to stop at a hotel for the night. While I survived that panic attack, my friendship with Wendy did not.  It was the first of many times that I headed for home rather than try to carry on with my plans despite my anxiety.  It was my first glimpse of Shrinking World Syndrome (SWS).


As if the physical effects of having an anxiety disorder are not awful enough, suffering from anxiety often means that we find ourselves making choices which, while temporarily relieving our discomfort, ultimately make our lives smaller, both geographically and emotionally. Shrinking World Syndrome starts to happen when, in an effort to avoid panic attacks or anything that will trigger anxiety, we start to avoid places, objects and even people.


Obviously I avoided the wedding venue and Wendy herself, but the SWS didn’t end there: for a long while after that incident, I was terrified of weddings (and Wendy—she was really pissed) and ended up missing quite a few during my most anxious years. (To this day, weddings still trigger a bit of anxiety for me.)


SWS is a sneaky bugger. Here’s how it starts: You have an anxiety episode at a party so you leave immediately in search of relief. No big deal, right? But then the following week, there is another party which you decide not to attend at all because you are afraid it will bring on your anxiety. So far, not terrible. Until you find yourself turning down invitations to parties because you are unwilling to “risk” another anxiety attack. Avoiding the “scene of the crime” starts to override your desire to get out and about socially. And what’s scary is that it can happen before you even recognize it.


SWS spreads: One day it’s just parties you don’t want to attend—then it’s social gatherings in general. As we avoid more places, home may be the one place that feels relatively safe. All of a sudden, being home or getting home or not leaving home becomes the main goal. On the day of Wendy’s wedding, I miraculously felt better as soon as I turned my car around. My anxiety brain misled me to believe that only home is safe. My anxiety shrunk my world. And, for some anxiety sisters, SWS can morph into full-blown agoraphobia.



SWS doesn’t just affect the anxiety sufferer. Obviously, others are impacted by your shrinking world as well. One anxiety sister I know will not get on an airplane, even if it means she is forever limited to wherever she can drive. She may not mourn the loss of weekend getaways and traveling opportunities, but her children—who also must miss family events due to distance—sure do. Her anxiety shrunk not only her world, but also her kids’ worlds.


So what do you do about SWS? First, you need to recognize it, which isn’t always an easy task. It took me years to understand how my anxiety around transportation kept my world extremely small. Especially when it came to elevators! I began to feel like I couldn’t safely leave my apartment. That’s when I sought medical attention.

Which is the second step.

Mental health professionals can be a lifeline in helping one cope with SWS. Sometimes, help may entail medication and therapy; sometimes, just one or the other. But, if you find yourself thinking about whether you will be able to handle your anxiety before committing to a plan, or changing plans because of your anxiety, you have Shrinking World Syndrome and you need some help to stretch your world out once again.

5 thoughts on “Shrinking World Syndrome

  1. I have struggled with debilitating anxiety for about 4 years now and in the last year I have had what feels like the worst case of sws I go to work and watch the clock the entire time then I go home walk to the liquor store for the liquid relief and stay in bed all day and I do this over and over again. I have a best friend who struggles with anxiety and depression and a boyfriend of 5 years that is just happy that I’m not in the hospital everyday now claiming my heart was intact going to give out. I want change. I want my world to be big again.

  2. Hi Sam,
    We know what it feels like to be debilitated by anxiety. Give yourself kudos in that you are able to get to work, even if you are uncomfortable (and we know it is way past uncomfortable). We have also been through the heart ER stuff as well. The good news is that you have a support system in your friend and boyfriend, and have not become totally isolated. Also, anxiety is an illness that can be managed. We know this because we have been where you are and gotten so much better. What treatment options have you tried (medicine, targeted therapy, etc.). We have a lot of suggestions on our website and we know it is hard to get going when you are feeling so bad. Let us know, what you have tried and we can give you some feedback. Please be in touch, Mags and Abs

  3. Wow! Am pretty new to this sight but am finding out that others suffer the way I do. I’ve never heard of SWS before but oh my goodness I had no idea this was actually a thing. I’m pretty much totally isolated. My son has to drive me to appointments (if I don’t postpone).
    And yes, folks get upset with me.
    Thank you so much for this.

  4. My anxiety and SWS was triggered about 5 years ago. A former friend said hateful things about me on a public forum and it put me into a panic about socializing with someone who was once one of my closest friends. I avoided her because she considered this other person one of her best friends. I was afraid of what was being said about me. Long story short, I ended up ghosting her, and the hateful person twisted things to her advantage. Now the thought of going places where I could potentially run into her and her family puts me into a panic. I tried therapy and the therapist’s use of his diagnosis of anxiety, made me feel invalidated. I felt like whenever he used my anxiety as a cause for how I was feeling it was another way of saying “You’re crazy.”

  5. Wow this is a great article! I too have never heard of this syndrome but it makes perfect sense. I have dealt with this off and on for years! Going somewhere and having anxiety and then wanting to avoid those places in the hopes that I can avoid anxiety. I do have a question….is it normal for this syndrome to seem to go away for years and then all of the sudden come back?
    My daughter, my mom and I go on trips to surrounding states and have do it for several years and we have the best time!
    Something triggered my anxiety last fall and got running full blast and now I struggle with going to the city that’s about 30 minutes away! I actually had high anxiety a couple of days ago (felt out of control and spacey feeling and cold all over). Thank the Lord I was able to push through it. Does it get easier the more you push through? I’ve had general anxiety and panic attacks off and on most of my life and it still throws me for a loop! Any help or advice would be greatly appreciated.
    Thank you!

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