Agoraphobia: What to know

Since the pandemic began, feeling overwhelmed in large crowds or fearful of public spaces became a new reality for some. However, for other individuals, this feeling is not new. 

Living with an intense fear of becoming overwhelmed or unable to escape may be linked to an anxiety disorder called agoraphobia. People with agoraphobia may often avoid new places or unfamiliar situations, such as open or enclosed spaces, crowds, public transportation and other places outside their home where they may not feel safe. These feelings may trigger a panic attack.

To understand agoraphobia, it’s important to recognize the symptoms, what makes it different from other anxiety disorders, as well as potential treatments.

What are the signs or symptoms of agoraphobia?

Those with agoraphobia may experience symptoms similar to a panic attack, including:

  • Intense fear of crowds, enclosed spaces or wide-open spaces
  • Rapid heartbeat or chest pain
  • Rapid breathing or hyperventilation
  • Headaches, dizziness or lightheadedness
  • Blurred vision or double vision
  • Elevated blood pressure
  • Excessive sweating or sudden chills
  • Upset stomach

What are the risk factors for agoraphobia?

Anyone may be at risk of developing agoraphobia, especially in response to the COVID-19 pandemic. However, certain factors may put you more at risk than others, for example, if you’re a woman or under the age of 35. Risk factors may include:

  • Having panic attacks or other phobias
  • Those who generally tend to worry, or have a nervous or anxious nature
  • Those who have experienced a stressful life event
  • Having a family history of agoraphobia
  • Those who lack of a support system

How is agoraphobia diagnosed?

If you think you may have agoraphobia or anxiety that interferes with your daily life, consider talking to your doctor or a psychiatrist. A health care provider may ask if you feel stressed leaving your house or if there are certain places or situations you avoid, due to fear.

A diagnosis depends on the severity of symptoms and how often they happen so it’s important to be completely honest with your health care providers.

How is agoraphobia treated?

Getting over agoraphobia without treatment may be difficult. Treatment varies from person to person but may include a combination of methods, including therapy, medication and lifestyle changes.

Cognitive behavioral therapy may help you work through your fears by identifying triggers that cause your anxiety. That may help you learn how to manage your reactions.

Lifestyle changes may also help manage the symptoms of agoraphobia, including:

  • Avoiding alcohol or caffeine
  • Eating a well-balanced diet
  • Exercising regularly
  • Practicing breathing exercises or meditation

If left untreated, agoraphobia may diminish a person’s quality of life, as they avoid events and social situations, which may lead to isolation, low self-esteem and depression.

As with many mental health challenges and anxiety issues, seeking treatment early may be helpful to better manage your symptoms and ultimately, lead a full life. Ask your health care professional if virtual care is an option.

Learn more about anxiety disorders

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