Most people experience some type of anxiety at one time in their life. Some anxiety is normal for people who are in new or unfamiliar situations. If anxiety happens often to the point of being debilitating, it can signal a greater problem. Frequent episodes of intense fear and anxiety are often associated with agoraphobia. Learn How to Define Agoraphobia Today…
Experts at the Mayo Clinic define agoraphobia as a type of anxiety disorder where someone fears being trapped or helpless in certain places and situations. This intense anxiety often results in panic attacks. Having this phobia causes sufferers to avoid places and situations where they think they can’t escape or get help. Examples of such situations include:
- Anywhere outside the home
- Anywhere there is a crowd
- Public transportation
- Traveling by air
- Dark, enclosed places like movie theaters
- Standing in a long line
- Crossing bridges
According to the National Institute of Mental Health, 2.4 percent of teenagers in the United States from the ages of 13 through 18, have a lifetime prevalence of agoraphobia considered severe. The rate of agoraphobia in girls is almost two-and-a-half times higher than boys.
There are about 3.2 million adults in the country who suffer with the phobia. Half of them are women. This means 4.9 percent of the adult population from ages 18 to 54 have experienced this disorder in their lifetime. Most people acquire the phobia before the age of 35.
Causes of Agoraphobia
There are many things that cause this phobia. Some people who have gone through a new or difficult situation or a stressful life event such as death of a loved one, abuse or being attacked are prone to the disorder. This is especially true for people who might also have some of the following conditions:
- Panic disorder
- Generalized anxiety disorder
- Personality disorder
- Obsessive Compulsive Disorder (OCD)
- Performance anxiety
- Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD)
Sometimes even people with certain medical conditions develop agoraphobia, especially if the medical condition endangers their life. Some of these medical conditions include:
- Organ failure
- Meniere’s disease
Major life events such as bereavement, divorce, childbirth and marriage can also increase the chances of experiencing agoraphobia.
Symptoms of Agoraphobia
People who have this disorder might not even know it. While they might admit they have a tendency to get anxious or have panic attacks, they might not realize they could also have agoraphobia. Going back to how experts define agoraphobia, it is relatively easy to see the differences between anxiety and a full-blown phobia. Agoraphobia is specifically defined as having a fear of places and situations from where they cannot easily escape or where they would not receive help if something were to happen.
If someone was trying to figure out if they have more than just a panic disorder, they’ll want to go through the following symptoms to see which ones apply to them. Symptoms include:
- Fear of crowds
- Fear of public transportation
- Fear of leaving the home or neighborhood
- Can’t leave home alone
- Purposely isolate themselves from others
- Fear of being alone in any situation
- Fear of losing control while out in public
- Often have a sense of helplessness
- Having too much dependence on others
- Fear of being in places where it might be hard to get out
- Fear of dying
Oftentimes, people who have any of the above fears will have physical symptoms when thinking about certain scenarios. Just the thought of flying in an airplane or being stuck inside an elevator might cause the following physical reactions associated with panic attacks:
- Rapid heart rate
- Excessive sweating
- Upset stomach or nausea
- Chest pain
- Trouble breathing
- Feeling shaky
- Sudden chills or sense of heat throughout the body
Many people who suffer with agoraphobia live their lives in fear and as a result are never able to leave the comforts of their own home. It is very difficult if not impossible for them to get out and meet new people and form new friendships. This can have an impact on their social life, along with their work and home life. Agoraphobia can increase the risk of depression and it can also wreak havoc on a person’s physical health. The phobia may even lead to alcohol or drug abuse as a way to deal with the loneliness and isolation.
If someone suspects they might have agoraphobia or know of someone who might have it, there are ways to get tested for a proper diagnosis. Again, professionals define agoraphobia as a fear of being in a certain situation without the ability to escape it or ask for help.
Diagnosis for agoraphobia is dependent on meeting certain criteria put together by the American Psychiatric Association. The diagnosis is based on whether someone feels severe fear and anxiety in certain situations including public transportation, crowds, being in an enclosed space, being in an open space and being outside of the home alone. If someone answers yes to two or more of these situations, they most likely have agoraphobia.
Other criteria for properly diagnosing someone with agoraphobia includes asking the following questions:
- Is the fear or anxiety always the result of exposure to a certain situation?
- Do you avoid situations or demand someone to accompany you or do you endure the situation while being severely distressed?
- Do you have fear or anxiety that is out of proportion to the actual danger of the situation?
- Do you experience significant problems with social situations, work or other parts of your life due to fear, anxiety or avoidance?
- Is your phobia or avoidance persistent, lasting for more than six months?
As a way to help people get appropriate treatment, there is also testing available that helps measure the severity of the phobia. These online assessments are found on the American Psychiatric Association’s website and are broken down into two separate age groups including adults and children ages 11 to 17.
The assessments are a total of ten questions that asks how they would rate their thoughts, feelings and behaviors in situations within the last seven days. These situations include crowds, public places, using transportation, traveling alone and being away from home.
Treatments for Agoraphobia
Fortunately, there are treatment options for those who suffer with this phobia. Depending on the severity of the disorder, there are many treatment options available including talk therapy, exposure therapy, medications and alternative forms of medicine.
Talk therapy has many benefits because it allows the person to understand where their fears originate and help them to realize the irrationality of their fears. They can also learn what specific types of scenarios trigger their feelings of panic or anxiety and develop coping mechanisms for dealing with them. For those who are too fearful of going to a new environment, there are understanding professionals who would be willing to come to their patient’s home.
As with many types of phobias, one of the best ways to overcome it is to face the fear. With exposure therapy, a professional such as a psychologist or counselor helps their patient to overcome their fear a little at a time by exposing them to certain scenarios that cause fear and anxiety.
Along with talk therapy, sometimes prescriptions medications might be temporarily needed to help with fear, anxiety and depression. Certain antidepressants and anti-anxiety medication can help alleviate symptoms associated with agoraphobia.
Taking certain kinds of herbs and dietary supplements can help the mind and body feel a sense of calmness. Ginseng, chamomile and milk thistle are herbs that have calming effects. These are taken in the form of supplements or herbal tea. Other types of alternative medicine that help alleviate fear and anxiety include aromatherapy, massage therapy, yoga and meditation.
Alternative medical practitioners and those who practice western medicine both agree the following lifestyle changes or adaptions can also be helpful for overcoming phobias:
- Decrease caffeine intake
- Avoid alcohol
- Eat healthy foods
- Get adequate amounts of exercise
- Reduce stress
Using any of the above methods and making necessary changes in diet and lifestyle can help people overcome their fear and anxiety and even their phobias as well.
If someone has full-blown agoraphobia, chances are there they will have to seek professional help and use one of the above methods above for treatment. It is important to remember that agoraphobia doesn’t happen overnight. Instead, it starts off by being afraid or having anxiety regarding certain situations and places.
If a child, teenager or adult begins to notice things that cause anxiety, the best thing to do is address the anxiety right away. If anxiety or fear is left untreated when it first begins, there is an increased risk of developing agoraphobia. It’s always best to treat anxiety and fear in the beginning stages, before it develops into a phobia.