Agoraphobia is the fear of situations or areas where you could feel trapped, embarrassed, scared, or helpless in open or public spaces or being in a crowd or standing in a line.
How does agoraphobia affect your life?
Agoraphobia is an anxiety disorder where one fears leaving environments or places that they feel comfortable in, like their house. People suffering from agoraphobia are scared to step into an environment where they might get trapped, feel helpless, or scared, like a movie theatre, crowded areas, elevators, or in public transport.
This anxiety disorder starts with a panic attack. The attack makes people fear the possibility of having such attacks again. So, they get comfortable with a specific environment. This, in turn, can lead to the fear of open spaces where it gets difficult to escape or where immediate help may not be available to them.
What does agoraphobia present as?
Agoraphobia presents as a fear of open spaces, crowded places, or being alone. A person suffering from agoraphobia will fear the following:
- Being in closed spaces like an elevator or movie theatre
- Being alone
- Other people looking or staring at them
- Panic attacks
- Being trapped in places where help may not be easily available.
Apart from fearing these things, a person with agoraphobia may also experience feelings like:
- Loss of control
Some of the physical symptoms that can occur are:
- Upset stomach
- Rapid heartbeat
- Trembling and sweating
- Sudden chills
Who is affected by agoraphobia?
Agoraphobia can affect people of any age group. It commonly affects people who are in their early adulthood like 21 or so years. In some cases, it might also affect children or older people.
Women are more prone than men; twice as many women get diagnosed with it. During a 1 year period, 2% of women and 1% of men are affected by agoraphobia.
The reason why agoraphobia occurs remains unclear. It is widely believed that parts of the brain that regulate our reactions to situations might be the cause. Genetic factors are another cause of agoraphobia – children of parents affected by agoraphobia stand a higher chance of acquiring it too.
In some cases, agoraphobia might even occur to people who have had panic attacks in the past. It leads them to start fearing similar situations.
Here are some of the risk factors associated with agoraphobia:
- Having other phobias
- Having a panic disorder
- Having a relative with anxiety disorders
- Responding to panic attacks with excessive fear
- Previous experiences of abuse, death of a loved one
- Being attacked
Can you have mild agoraphobia?
Usually, agoraphobia starts as a mild anxiety disorder. You have a few panic attacks initially. If left untreated, it can get worse with time.
Though there is no cure for agoraphobia, if you seek medical advice in the initial stages, you can get control over your panic attacks. Depending on the type and stage of your agoraphobia, your doctor will come up with a treatment plan for you. The treatment options include therapy, medications, and lifestyle changes.
In some cases, the agoraphobia may even disappear over time, possibly because people have constantly exposed themselves to the situations that triggered them, until their fears subside.
Treatment for Agoraphobia
The doctors may prescribe one or both the types of medications for agoraphobia – an anti-anxiety medication or selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors (SSRIs).
Anti-anxiety medications are a short term solution. These sedatives relieve the symptoms of anxiety. SSRIs are a type of antidepressant which is usually prescribed for the treatment of agoraphobia. It is started at a higher dose at the beginning of the treatment. In the last few stages of the treatment, the dosage is decreased when the patient starts showing improvement.
Therapy includes psychotherapy, cognitive-behavioural therapy (CBT), and exposure therapy.
Psychotherapy involves meeting a mental health professional or therapist regularly. This gives you the opportunity to talk about your fears and any issues that may be contributing to your fears. For faster and effective results, therapy is often combined with mild medications.
Cognitive-behavioural therapy teaches you how to work through stressful situations that may cause panic attacks. It involves replacing negative thoughts with healthy ones. It is a common form of therapy for people with agoraphobia and focuses on helping them regain control over their lives.
Exposure therapy focuses on exposing you to situations that trigger fear. Over time, it may make your fears disappear.
Lifestyle changes like overcoming any addiction, regular exercise, a proper diet can help control agoraphobia.
Self-help techniques like deep breathing to stop a panic attack might help curb agoraphobia.
If detected early, agoraphobia can be cured. With effective treatment, a therapist or doctor, or both combined, can help you get back to your normal life. If you feel you have the symptoms of agoraphobia, consider talking to your doctor.