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Crowded Events and Phobias

Managing Your Phobia at Once in a Lifetime Events


Updated January 16, 2009

Barack Obama’s Presidential Inauguration may well go down in history as one of the most heavily attended events of all time. With an estimated four million or more attendees, such an event can strain the nerves of even the calmest person. If you have phobias, even a much smaller gathering can be enough to inspire terror. Yet going through life unable to participate in historic moments can be frustrating and upsetting.

Phobia Triggers

If you suffer from claustrophobia, agoraphobia or social phobia, it's easy to imagine how being tightly packed into a small area with strangers could trigger your fears. If you have other phobias, though, you might be surprised to find yourself affected. It would be impossible to list every phobia trigger that might occur at an event, but here are a few examples.

Do you suffer from germaphobia? Most event organizers rely on portable toilets to accommodate large crowds. Hand washing facilities may or may not be available. You will not be able to maintain a "personal bubble," putting you in physical contact with strangers.

Is your phobia related to food? At a large event, you may find your dining options limited. Vendor carts may be your only choice. Due to heightened security restrictions, you may not be allowed to bring your own food to the event.

If you suffer from hypochondriasis or nosophobia, stress can trigger your symptoms. Although these events are a lot of fun, they are also stressful. In addition, you may be unable to perform certain comforting rituals, such as checking your temperature, due to the size of the crowd and lack of privacy. In the long run, this is good for overcoming your phobia, but it can lead to a panic attack in the moment.

No matter what your specific phobia is, keep in mind that your options for escape will be limited. Should you happen to encounter a feared object or situation, you may have no choice but to confront it. Again, this is excellent therapy, but it may be overwhelming when not under the guidance of a clinician.

Managing Your Phobia

Does this mean that you should simply avoid crowded events altogether? Not at all. In fact, there are many steps you can take to control your phobia while managing immense crowds.

Make your plans as early as possible. For example, those who made hotel reservations a year in advance for the Obama Inauguration were able to secure rooms close to the festivities at reasonable prices. In addition, many people find that they tolerate even massive crowds more easily when they are not in a confined space, like a subway car or bus.

Planning ahead can also help you do things to avoid much of the crowd. Limited tickets are often available to VIP areas, which are much less crowded and may provide access to indoor restrooms and better dining options (at a price, of course). A noteworthy example for the Inauguration is the Newseum. With a large picture window overlooking the Inaugural Parade route and an HD screen broadcasting the Swearing In ceremony, this was a terrific alternative to the densely packed National Mall. However, admission tickets sold out weeks in advance.

Consider joining the festivities but avoiding the main event. An excellent example comes from Woodstock 1994, which was attended by approximately 450,000 people. Legendary musical acts performed on the main stage, drawing the majority of the crowd. However, up-and-coming artists, many of whom later became legends in their own right, performed on the smaller South Stage. Additionally, an entire tent village was set up away from the stages, hosting a wide range of independent artists, shops and even a project that introduced the then-new World Wide Web. All of these areas were much less crowded than the main stage, though still flowing with the same energy and excitement.

Make backup plans. If you have a panic attack, or simply find your nerves shattered, you might not feel up to going ahead with your original plan. In addition, you might end up stuck in traffic, waiting for hours on a subway platform or unable to get anywhere close to your planned destination. Prepare for negative possibilities by making alternate plans at a location far away from the main event. Although you might have to move at a snail’s pace, just knowing that you are on your way out of the crowd can help to calm your nerves and control your panic.

Travel with a companion who understands but does not share your phobia. A calm and soothing companion can help steer you away from a terrifying situation, or at least create a human shield between you and your feared object. He or she can help talk you down from a panic attack, or provide a safe and familiar shoulder to cry on. Just be sure that your companion knows your preferred coping mechanisms in advance.

Have an emergency supply of cash. Although you need to be extremely careful of theft or loss, a well-hidden stash of emergency money can buy you additional options. Stepping into a cab rather than waiting for a bus, buying a terribly overpriced meal in exchange for using a real restroom, or even replacing a forgotten anti-anxiety medication can go a long way towards minimizing your phobic reactions.

Keep in mind that security is generally plentiful and easy to find. If you need medical attention or an escort, just flag down a nearby officer. They are usually quite helpful.

The Bottom Line

Extremely crowded events can be stressful for anyone. If you suffer from phobias, it is true that attending these events can heighten your risk of experiencing a panicked reaction. Nonetheless, there is no reason that you should not enjoy such once in a lifetime opportunities.

Thoroughly plan and prepare for your trip. Always have at least one backup plan, and travel with a supportive companion and an emergency supply of cash. Know your triggers and your limits, and never be afraid to remove yourself from any situation. With a bit of foresight, you can have a successful and even enjoyable experience.


American Psychiatric Association. (1994). Diagnostic and statistical manual of mental disorders (4th Ed.). Washington, DC: Author.

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