Your question: Why do I get anxious in crowded places?

My reply:

Hi, I hope this message finds you well. My name is Cesar Guedez, a psychologist trained in cognitive behavioral therapy.

Crowds are inevitable. Very often we find ourselves stuck in a group of people either in traffic, in a supermarket line or just trying to cross the street. It is something typical of cities that we cannot change, and therefore, it is necessary to learn to adapt to it.

Anxiety generated by crowds is common, typical in people who live in big cities and in their daily life are surrounded by a large number of people. The symptoms appear when the person is in a crowd, and are characterized by being annoying and abrupt.

This type of anxiety is called Enochlophobia: a feeling of intense fear that appears when the person is in a crowd, and is characterized by tachycardia, muscle tension, difficulty breathing and intense fear of not being able to escape and/or being hurt in the crowd.

If you feel anxiety in crowds, I would like to reassure you that it is a common concern and, moreover, it has a solution. Anxiety is necessary in small doses, but it becomes a problem when it affects your quality of life and prevents you from performing normal daily activities.

It is important that you identify the source of your anxiety before you begin to apply strategies to help you cope with it.

Why do you feel anxiety in crowds?

Anxiety or fear of crowds and crowded spaces has different causes, all related to the perception of safety and personal space, which manifests itself in the form of overwhelming and frightening thoughts that trigger physical and emotional symptoms when you are in the middle of a crowd. Some of the causes are:

Fear of not being able to escape or getting hurt

Whether in an office, restaurant or even at home, the workplace can generate anxiety because it is associated with stressful responsibilities. If your job is very demanding, your anxiety may be present only when you arrive at this place.

Fear of the judgment of others

Psychological research has shown(1) that people often feel anxious in crowded places because they are afraid of being judged or criticized by other people, whether strangers or not. Therefore, it is likely that your fear of crowds is related to the idea that other people will notice you and speak negatively about you. This is related to social anxiety. A person might, for example, avoid using public transportation because he or she feels that others will make fun of his or her face or clothing.

Traumatic experience

If you have experienced a traumatic experience in a crowd, such as a stampede, earthquake or terrorist attack, you are likely to avoid crowded spaces in the future for fear that this event could happen to you again.

How to manage anxiety in crowded places?

Like any other anxiety problem, Enochlophobia should be diagnosed and treated by a mental health professional. However, there are strategies you can implement to cope with the feeling of anxiety, fear or panic related to crowds and crowded places.

Crowd Control

When you are stuck in a crowd, breathe slowly, inhaling for three seconds and exhaling for three seconds, while hugging your body into an X shape. As you feel the tension in your body decrease, mentally repeat to yourself phrases that help you stay calm, such as “everything will pass” or “you’ll be fine,” until you make it out of the crowd.

Relaxation and breathing

Anxiety destabilizes your body with annoying symptoms that are difficult to control, but through progressive relaxation and slow breathing you can cope with your anxiety episodes and diminish the symptoms. Whether you are alone or in public, relaxation allows you to relieve these symptoms. Close your eyes and inhale and exhale in 3-second intervals. In the meantime, repeat in your mind key phrases that generate motivation and pride. “You can deal with this situation,” “You have been through this before and have been able to get through it,” “You have the strength to deal with this problem,” to name a few examples.

Gradual approach to anxiety

If anxiety related to crowded places has become very intense, you need to make modifications in your life. Avoiding public transportation and crowded times at the grocery store may be helpful. However, these modifications cannot be static, as the solution to anxiety is not to isolate yourself and avoid the problem. 

Gradually, you can try approaching crowded places while applying breathing exercises and crowd control. You can start by taking the subway to work one or two days a week, then go to the supermarket at a busy time, and gradually make changes that bring you closer to the problem itself, and allow you to confront your anxiety about crowded places.

In my experience…

Anxiety about crowded places can be quite frightening, as it makes a person feel that their life is in danger. Your fear and anxiety is natural and understandable, even if other people or yourself try to minimize it. You must learn to identify what are the triggers of your anxiety in order to apply effective strategies to help you improve your quality of life.

Cognitive behavioral therapy is a great help for your problem, as it will allow you to develop more specific strategies to deal with the panic you feel when you are in a crowd.

Remember that you have the ability to improve your psychological state, even if during moments of anxiety or depression you feel hopeless. You can always make small changes that will pay off in the long run. The fact that you are contacting me to seek professional attention in psychological counseling is already a step, and I recognize and applaud you for that. You are already doing something and wanting to change always leads you in the right direction.

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