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.