What is Agoraphobia?
Agoraphobia is a severe anxiety disorder that many people don't realize they have. It's a fear of places and situations where it is hard to escape or get help if something bad happens. People with agoraphobia often feel like they can't leave their houses because they think about what would happen if they were in a situation where getting home was difficult, such as not being able to find the right train station or bus stop.
The fear becomes so overwhelming that sufferers avoid these places and situations altogether, and sometimes won't leave their house for months or years at a time.
2 Types of Agoraphobia
There are two main types of agoraphobia: situational and generalized.
- Situational agoraphobia is when sufferers only have anxiety about certain places, people, or events. For example, a person with this type of agoraphobia may be able to be around other adults but not children, so he/she won't go to playgrounds or parks where there are high chances of encountering kids. A person with situational agoraphobia might also get anxious when he's in a crowded place, like a restaurant, public transportation, or the supermarket because it makes him/her feel closed in and claustrophobic.
- Generalized agoraphobia, on the other hand, is when sufferers experience anxiety in multiple situations and environments. People with this type of agoraphobia have an intense fear of going anywhere outside of their own home, not even to normal, everyday places. These people typically need help getting from one place to another to prevent doing self-harm.
How Do You Get Agoraphobia?
Although the true cause of agoraphobia remains a mystery, it has been linked to genetic, environmental and psychological factors. Additionally, research shows that a person who has experienced a traumatic event, or has been diagnosed with a mental health condition, is more likely to develop this type of anxiety disorder. The following mental disorders are associated with agoraphobia:
- Other anxiety disorders
- Bipolar disorder
- Other social phobias
- Obsessive compulsive disorder (OCD)
- Post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD)
- Panic disorders
Just like other phobias, agoraphobia is caused by an intense, irrational fear of specific triggers. These fears often develop during childhood when we're too young to know how to react appropriately to the things we see and experience. For example, if someone gets hurt or trapped somewhere where there's no escape or help available, they may become afraid of similar scenarios in the future because they feel helpless to do anything about it.
Anyone can develop agoraphobia, though it often starts in childhood or adolescence when sufferers are too young to understand the things they're experiencing.
Symptoms of Agoraphobia
Agoraphobia is a very difficult condition to manage because sufferers feel like they can't do much of anything without someone else by their side. It's common for people who have other anxiety disorders to develop agoraphobia because they fear what might happen if they are in a situation that provokes the same symptoms as other types of anxiety disorders. The physical symptoms of agoraphobia may include the following:
- Extreme fear
- Rapid heartbeat
- Shortness of breath or breathing difficulties
- Panic attack symptoms
- Hot flashes
- Fear of dying
- Upset stomach
- Intense need to get out of whatever situation they're in as soon as possible
If you know someone with agoraphobia, you might notice that they rarely leave the house, and only for specific reasons. They might also avoid going to crowded places or events during peak hours, let alone use public transport where it would be hard for them to escape quickly if needed.
Is Agoraphobia Uncommon?
According to Australia Counselling, it is thought that about 5% of the population in Australia are agoraphobic. This condition is also twice as common in women as compared to men.
Is Agoraphobia Treatable?
There are many treatment options available to agoraphobia patients, but their effects vary from person to person. An early diagnosis of agoraphobia is essential before anyone can choose the proper treatment plan for them.
Like with most phobias, a combination of cognitive behaviour therapy and medication is considered to be one of the most effective treatments for agoraphobia. Cognitive behavioural therapy helps people learn how to react more appropriately to their fears so that they can reduce them over time. Mental health professionals who specialise in such therapies can teach patients relaxation techniques and other self-help methods they can use whenever they find themselves in a stressful situation.
Exposure therapy has also been proven to be another invaluable tool for severe agoraphobia, as it desensitises the individual to what they perceive to be an uncomfortable situation or place. It helps the person suffering from agoraphobia develop spatial awareness so that they are able to navigate themselves in different environments and not let their fear interfere with their everyday activities.
Anti-anxiety drugs, such as selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors, might also be prescribed during the treatment process if symptoms get worse. People may need some sort of counseling long after treatment is over if their fear becomes so powerful that it starts getting in the way of their daily activities.
However in most cases, agoraphobia is something you live with for your whole life — it doesn't go away completely. People who have been through treatment may only feel the full effects during a stressful event or if they encounter a trigger they haven't dealt with yet. In these cases, sufferers will need to practice cognitive behaviour therapies so that their reactions aren't as severe. Most people find that they can keep their phobia under control if they continue working on coping strategies even after treatment has ended.
Other Things You Should Know
If you know someone with agoraphobia, remember that their condition must not be confused with social anxiety disorder, which is the fear of committing social blunders and being judged by others. Agoraphobia occurs when there is an uncontrollable fear of having an anxiety attack in unfamiliar surroundings. You should also keep in mind that many people with agoraphobia also suffer from panic disorder or social anxiety, and these issues may make it hard for them to open up to you about what they're experiencing.
Some research suggests that your risk of developing phobias is related to genetics — children are more likely than others to develop the same fears as their parents. However, most people who have phobias never express them or act on them because they understand how irrational they are, so it's difficult to say whether phobias are hereditary.
If someone you know is suffering from any kind of anxiety disorder, you should let them know that help is available and try not to be judgmental about what they're experiencing. They may seem fine on the outside but might be having intense panic attacks on the inside, so it's important that you remain supportive throughout their treatment process.
Treatment is an ordeal for most people with agoraphobia, but therapy can help them learn how to control their fears and improve their quality of life. People with agoraphobia shouldn't feel like they have to fight this battle on their own — family members and friends are often willing to lend support in any way they can.