Everyone feels a little uncomfortable in public places, but agoraphobia – the intense fear of being in a public place – is a real mental disorder that affects 3.2 million adults in the US, according to 2010 statistics from the Mental Illness Research Association. The fear of being in public places and open spaces is most commonly associated with agoraphobia, but that is merely part of the disorder.
Psychologists say that agoraphobia stems from the fear of being in places where escape or getting help might prove to be difficult. This is why patients suffering from agoraphobia are usually also afraid of:
- traveling in trains, buses, or planes
- being in shops, restaurants, cinemas, and other places with no easy exit
- being on bridges and elevators
- being anywhere far from home
Because the disorder can have many triggers, it greatly affects the quality of life of the people suffering from it. Some are able to cope with the disease outside their home by sticking to routine and familiar areas, while others can travel outside their home and use public transportation only when they’re with a family member or friend. Many choose to deal with their fears by staying inside their homes 24 hours a day, 7 days a week.
What causes further problems is that agoraphobia is also associated with panic disorder. People suffering from panic disorder can experience panic attacks that occur without warning, and they may worry about having an embarrassing panic attack in a place where help may not be available or escape may be difficult. This is why psychologists think that agoraphobia may be caused by people with panic disorder.
The good news is that agoraphobia doesn’t have to entirely take over your life. If you suffer from agoraphobia, you have some treatment options to choose from; these treatment options can help you properly cope with agoraphobia and improve your quality of life.
Cognitive behavioral therapy
One of the most popularly used treatments for agoraphobia is cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT). Cognitive behavioral therapy can helps you adopt new thought patterns, feelings, and behaviors, so you can more easily deal with and ultimately overcome agoraphobia. It is widely regarded as an effective treatment for various mental health problems. To change both thought and behavior, CBT uses techniques from cognitive therapy and behavioral therapy.
Cognitive therapy provides the concept that certain ways of thinking can serve as triggers for mental health problems such as phobias, anxiety, and depression. In CBT, the therapist helps the patient identify and understand his or her current thought patterns. This will help the patient identify harmful and unhelpful ideas or attitudes that cause unnecessary anxiety. By identifying these negative thoughts, you can change these thought patterns to be more helpful and realistic, thus avoiding the anxiety they bring.
The behavioral aspect of CBT, on the other hand, aims to change behaviors that are considered unhelpful or harmful. For instance, a patient with agoraphobia typically reacts negatively or harmfully to public places and open spaces, so your therapist will help you change this behavior. The techniques used for behavioral therapy usually vary depending on the severity of the condition and circumstances, but you will most likely make the changes one step at a time.
For instance, your therapist may first recommend for you to go for a quick walk from your home with a family member or a friend. Over time, you may build up to a longer walk or a trip on the bus. Your therapist will teach you how to control anxiety along the way, using techniques such as deep breathing. This behavioral therapy technique is classified as exposure therapy – you are simply exposed to more and more feared situations so you can learn how to cope little by little.
Cognitive behavioral therapy is typically carried out through weekly sessions of approximately 50 minutes each, for a span of several weeks. Patients are expected to take an active role in these sessions and are usually given homework between sessions. You may also be asked to keep a journal of the thoughts and feelings you have when anxiety strikes.
Even though they’re commonly used to treat depression, antidepressants can also help reduce the symptoms of phobias. These medications work by interfering with brain chemicals and neurotransmitters that may be involved in bringing about anxiety-causing symptoms.
There are several types of antidepressants that you may get a prescription for. They each have their own pros and cons as well as possible side effects. Selective serotonin reuptake inhibitor (SSRI) antidepressants are most commonly used for treating anxiety disorders.
Keep in mind that antidepressants don’t work instantly. According to medical experts, it may take 2 to 4 weeks for these medications’ effects to build up. So you have to give these medicines time to work, rather than stop taking them when you don’t experience any effects after the first week or so. It pays off to be patient when you’re prescribed an antidepressant medication. Health experts also emphasize that antidepressants are not usually addictive and don’t have a tranquilizing effect.
In many cases of agoraphobia, a combination of CBT and an SSRI antidepressant works better than either treatment alone.