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Our Health: Beating phobias cyberspace-style.

Byline: Louise Palfreyman

EARLIER this year, four volunteers took part in an experiment to see if they could survive for 100 hours locked in a room - using only the internet.

The object was to see if it was possible to live without leaving the house.

The volunteers ordered food and clothes and found they could make friends and find entertainment at the touch of a button.

But far from being a futuristic fantasy, this is already daily life for thousands of people across the world - because the internet has become a vital lifeline for sufferers of agoraphobia.

In fact, the worldwide web could have been designed for people who are afraid to leave the house.

Agoraphobia is an anxiety disorder which leaves sufferers unable to confront daily situations. It is not just a fear of open spaces but can also encompass fear of meeting people, fear of crowds and fear of life itself.

Imprisoned in their own homes, agoraphobics used to have nothing for company but their terror of the outside. Now, thanks to a tiny support group based in Warwickshire, a lifeline is being offered to those in despair - across the world.

First Steps to Freedom was established in Kenilworth in 1991 for people suffering a range of phobias and anxiety disorders. The group used to rely mainly on telephone conferencing lines and a helpline number to offer support services to those unable to leave the house.

But two years ago the group established an Internet website and hasn't looked back since.

The site has been visited by thousands of agoraphobics, who can learn more about their condition and how to use the Internet to help them run their lives.

The most recent development has been so-called "e-group conferencing" which allows agoraphobics and people with a whole range of anxiety disorders to chat online.

Sheila Harris suffered from agoraphobia for four years and vowed to help other people with the condition when she finally conquered her fear in 1987.

She joined the support group in 1991 and has become a cornerstone of the organisation, helping to run the Internet site from a tiny bedroom in Kenilworth.

At the time, Sheila, 61, had to get her builder husband Robin, 62, to do the shopping, and was constantly calling him to come home.

She said: "I was scared of being alone as well as going out but if I'd had the Internet, I would have not only been able to carry out practical jobs but would have discovered a wealth of support as well.

"And there are so many links to other sites that you really can run your life from home."

Agoraphobics today can find instant understanding by entering a virtual chatroom where everyone is suffering from a phobia. The website caters for anything from obsessive compulsive disorder to a fear of pigeons.

Many phobias restrict a person's ability to go out, cutting off potential support and making normal life impossible.

The practical and emotional benefits of using the Internet are enormous to those suffering from agoraphobia, says Sheila, who knows only too well how life can grind to a halt.

She went from being a happy, outgoing person, with a job as a book-keeper and a grown-up family, to a total recluse.

Sheila is not sure what triggered her agoraphobia but the effects were devastating.

"I was consumed by a constant and overwhelming fear and couldn't go out," she said. "My whole life stopped. I was scared to get up from a chair to go into another room and even scared of my husband when he came home.

"I was scared of being on my own but also scared of being in a crowd. I was prescribed all sorts of drugs - some helped and some didn't."

It was a long road to recovery but Sheila found that gradually her fears subsided.

"It was confronting my anxieties and learning to control my fears with relaxation and breathing exercises which finally got me over it," she said.

Sheila is in no doubt as to how useful the Internet is for agoraphobics because it provides instant tips on how to beat your fears.

And the opportunity to "talk" to other sufferers can be a life-saver.

First Steps To Freedom has established links with an e-group of phobics in America and plans are under way to make contact with a group in Australia.

Sheila said: "We get visits to the website from across the world. I am currently in touch with an Australian girl who is agoraphobic and worried about a forthcoming trip to England. She wants to make contact with someone in this country to allay her fears.

"The key to conquering any phobia is to get to the root cause - which is anxiety.

"Learning techniques for reducing panic attacks and fear will, in turn, help conquer any phobia but it is also vital to know you are not alone."

First Steps To Freedom can be reached on www.firststeps.demon.co.uk

For those without access to the Internet, a helpline operates from 10am-10pm every day on 01926 851608. Telephone self-help groups are also available to members who can join the organisation for pounds 10 a year or pounds 5 for pensioners.

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INTERNET SUPPORT... Sheila Harris
COPYRIGHT 1999 Birmingham Post & Mail Ltd
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Publication:Sunday Mercury (Birmingham, England)
Date:Dec 5, 1999
Words:877
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