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How to Get Over Your Irrational Fear of Crowds

Whether it’s an angry mob or just the shopping mall, a mass of people can be a massive problem

People fear crowds in several different ways. There’s the aspect where people feel they have no means of escape (agoraphobia); there’s the more obvious or relatable fear of an unpredictable mob (enochlophobia); and there’s the terror that strikes many of us when standing up and talking or performing before a crowd (your basic social anxiety). Either way, it’s pretty common, and it can really hold you back from enjoying life.

We talked to some experts who spend a lot of time around crowds to get their perspectives on making these fears disperse in an orderly fashion.

Martin Hsia, anxiety therapist: I had a patient who had a panic attack while in Ikea: It’s a crowded place, it’s a maze, you don’t know which direction you are, so you can feel trapped. Then what happens, though, is that person definitely stops going to Ikea — but that can generalize, so now this person is tempted to stop going to the mall.

There are three main things that trigger a fear of crowds: For some, it’s a similar sensation to claustrophobia — so many people around that they can’t get out. It just feels unsafe. For people who have panic disorder, it’s more about, what if they panic in this enclosed crowded space and they can’t get out? The anxiety of panicking creates the panic. Maybe it’s gonna be socially embarrassing. Secondly, there are some people who get sensory overload — some people are just overwhelmed by loud noises and lots of stimulation.

The third is a bit of a departure. I used to work at the VA, and veterans said they hated crowds. For anyone who’s been in a combat zone, a firefight or in hand-to-hand combat, [the idea of] going to movie theaters? Forget it. Airports? No way. Because for them, it’s like, “I don’t know who these people are. I have trouble trusting strangers and feeling safe.”

A lot of veterans say that if they go to a busy restaurant, they’ll only sit by the exit. If they go to a movie theater, they have to be at the end of a row or at the back. In extreme cases, they’re not only avoiding crowds, they’re avoiding people, and eventually, they’re living alone in the forest or the desert. And that’s no way to live.

For treatment, we do exposure therapy, in which we start slowly and increase gradually. The thought of them going to the mall at 4 p.m. around Christmas may be terrifying, but if you went on a Wednesday at 10:30 a.m.? “Eh, maybe that’d be all right,” they’ll say. There’s other pieces: What part of the mall? What if you went to the end where there’s a dying department store and hung out by the end with the bags and shoes? That’d be okay. But the food court, say, would cause much more anxiety. There’s many variables to what contributes to fear, so I challenge people to start at the bottom and move up.

Brad Melekian, college professor: I’ve been teaching for 11 years and taught well over 1,200 individual class periods, and I’ve been nervous for the first five minutes of every single one of those. Not crippling anxiety, but that kind of butterfly-in-the-stomach thing, and I can’t figure out what it is. That’s compounded when there’s big events — last year I interviewed Isabel Allende in front of 800 people, maybe. I was so nervous! I couldn’t really figure out why — there was no threat. But every teacher I know has that same experience.

You do settle in after a few minutes. There’s this Robert Frost line: He talks about how the best way out is through. So you just get going, and what I realize is that it quickly transfers to real joy. I sort of settle into the classroom, and you realize your students like the material too, and your job is to talk about it for 80 minutes, which is pretty easy. I teach a lot of seniors, so at the end of the year, they’re coming to me with all sorts of different fears about life in general. I always end up coming back to that Frost line because no matter what the fear is, it seems like that’s always the answer. If I face it and go through it, 99 percent of the time, nothing bad is gonna happen.

When I think about how many class periods I’ve taught, and being nervous at least a little bit at the beginning for each of them, I can honestly say that nothing bad has ever happened in the classroom. But it’s still there — it’s an omnipresent fact of life.

It’s less of an abstract fear and more of a worry how the class period is going to go, and all the factors you can’t control: Did the students read the material? Did they have anything to say about it? Am I going to ask a question and they’re not gonna have an answer to it? Those kinds of things. I’m no sage in terms of advice, but preparation lessens the fear really quickly. If I’m super prepared, I feel fine, or close to it. if I’ve had a busy week and I’m going into class hoping for the best, I’m usually pretty uptight.

Other colleagues of mine just take beta blockers, and that makes it go away.

Ariel Lassiter, professional soccer player, L.A. Galaxy: I don’t get too nervous in front of a big crowd. Maybe in the buildup to the game there might be a little nervousness, but once the ref blows the whistle, it all kind of goes away. All the crowd noise is just white noise: Sometimes when the crowd really gets into it — some team might be close to scoring a goal and everyone starts cheering — it might seem a little louder, but it’s always just white noise for me.

Before the game, honestly I’m just so focused on getting ready to play that everything else is secondary. All the noise and all the fans don’t make me nervous. For me, it kind of pumps me up even more to get ready to play, especially when the stands are full.

Allan Jones, international police adviser and crowd-behavior specialist: The thing with crowds is it’s not a normal thing for people — especially a disordered crowd. If we’re going into a stadium for a football match or somewhere there’s an orderly progression of queues, it doesn’t seem too bad — we’re quite used to queuing up to see our favorite band, to see a show, and that’s okay because there’s a certain amount of order with it. But when there’s no order, it becomes difficult to take. One of the reasons is our senses are overwhelmed with everything that’s going on — there are lots of things going on at eye level. It’s hard to distinguish, so you can’t focus on any one thing. There’s confusion over actions, what direction to go. Sometimes that causes so much difficulty in the brain it may lead to a phobia.

Among the more interesting models of recent years was a study called the elaborated social identity model. One of the things was that a crowd space isn’t one homogenous object, but smaller groups of people that create one collective whole. And when you look at a crowd, that’s quite true, so different people will behave different ways. They’ll behave most prominently according to the people around them, and mirror their behavior. You certainly see that with football hooligan crowds in Europe.

If you find yourself stuck in a crowd and there’s violence, the natural reaction is to try and find the people you came with. But unless it’s a small child, I strongly suggest you let them look after themselves and head straight for the nearest place of safety — a café, a hotel, a bar — and sit there till it all calms down. Then head back to your residence and you’ll invariably find the people you came with. Another good thing is to have your phone connected to someone else so they can see where you are, using a phone app that has a trace on where you are in the area. It’s hard to call someone with all the noise. Better to text.

The vast majority of gatherings are safe. There’s a lot of really good events — music, sporting or cultural — that go on every day without incident. In the greater scheme of things, you’re more likely to get run over by a bus on the way home than get in a crowd incident. However, it’s always good to be aware of certain things, looking around you and saying, “If something happens, where am I going to go? Where’s my place of safety? Where’s my way out of here? Where are the exits?”

Listen to what you’re being told: If you’re in a stadium, look for the exit sign. Have a look around: Where are the toilets? Where are the exits? How many stairs do you need to go down. And it might not be the way you went in — the vast majority of people looking for an exit will go out the same way they came in. It’s part of human nature. We’ve already mind-mapped our way in, and we’ll mind-map our way out the same way.

I can absolutely empathize with people who have a fear of crowds. Now when I look at a crowd, I can go, “See those two guys there, they’re gonna start a fight in a minute. See that crowd over there, they’re your troublemakers. See those people leaving, there’s something wrong over there.” It’s pattern recognition. I can remember being a young police officer just promoted and working in a city in Northern Ireland during the height of the Troubles. We’d gotten a call that a shop was being looted in the middle of town owned by an Asian gentleman, and that they were going to burn him as well. So we had to very quickly get to him and get him out before he was killed. There was a crowd of 5,000 people, and there were 20 of us.

I can remember physically feeling the panic starting to rise and the fear of failure, thinking, I’m gonna get ripped to pieces here. These people are going to take our guns and shoot us. There was a tangible feeling going up my chest. Then I realized, everybody’s looking to you to make a decision here — you’re going to have to lead. And that change in mindset is what got me out the other side. Once we got out, there was such a feeling of relief and exhilaration.