Agoraphobia is an anxiety disorder that causes extreme fear of public places, especially those which are unfamiliar. It is believed that this specific phobia is enhanced by the onset of frequent panic attacks. One theory suggests that the patient actually fears experiencing symptoms of panic in public, and therefore becomes distressed about leaving his or her home. Large and open spaces that attract numerous people are of special concern. When there is no place to hide away the onset of a panic attack, the patient may avoid the location.
Symptoms of Agoraphobia
Those who suffer from agoraphobia experience many different symptoms, depending upon the individual and situation. There are varying degrees of this phobia, and professional help may be recommended if the level of panic and fear begin to interfere with normal life. For example, some people may not be able to hold a job, as the feelings of panic are uncontrollable. There are several different phobias that may include any of the following symptoms, so an assessment or evaluation may be necessary.
- Fear of leaving one's home
- Fear of bridges, buses, trains or other automobiles
- Fear of crowds
- Fear of large, open spaces with numerous people
- Fear of experiencing symptoms in public
- Avoidance of work, people or everyday common situations which involve public places
- History of panic attacks
- Depression or suicidal thoughts
- Chest pain, heart palpitations, cold sweats, headaches or dizziness
Causes of Agoraphobia
While no known cause has been discovered, research concludes that there may be several causes for agoraphobia. Physical and physiological factors may both play a role, as a brain chemical imbalance may be partially to blame. Often, panic disorder is a prerequisite to agoraphobia, as it is believed that the patient becomes uncomfortable with the panic disorder to the point at which he/she avoids situations where it cannot potentially be hidden. In other words, if feelings of panic creep up while shopping at a mall, there are very few opportunities to escape embarrassment. Long term use of tranquilizers and sleeping pills may be related to development of this mental illness. Additionally, the experience of severe trauma as a child or an adult may lead to this phobia.
Diagnosis of Agoraphobia
Because the symptoms of agoraphobia are shared with many other mental disorders, it's often difficult to diagnose. Generally, when drug or alcohol abuse is involved, treatment will focus on rehabilitation. If panic disorder has already been diagnosed, often the effects of agoraphobia will go unnoticed, as they are simply attributed to the sensations of panic. If no physical medical conditions are found, and additional symptoms do not point to alternate phobias, such as social anxiety, OCD, PTSD or separation anxiety, a diagnosis of agoraphobia may be considered.
Treatment options for agoraphobia will vary according to severity of the illness, individual symptoms and medical and psychological history. An assessment will usually be made by a psychiatrist or psychologist according to reports of behavior, family history of mental illness and any physical conditions that may be present. Often, a combination of one or more treatment options will help to alleviate panic and other symptoms, leading the patient to be more comfortable engaging in normal activities.
- Prescription medication can often alleviate feelings of panic, anxiety and depression. Trial and error may be necessary to uncover the best solution of this type.
- Counseling or psychotherapy can assist the patient in formulating a plan for coping with the disorder and help to return feelings of control and calmness.
- Cognitive therapy deals with the practice of awareness before and during a triggering situation. Becoming aware helps the patient to recognize patterns and events which may cause the panic reaction.
- Changes to diet and lifestyle with focus on obtaining proper vitamins and minerals can help the brain to balance natural and necessary chemical production.
- Alternative healing, such as herbal methods, meditation, yoga or color therapy can assist with healing the body and mind, as a whole.
- Joining a support group can ease the patient emotionally by offering advice, ideas and support from others sharing the same types of experience.