If you’ve avoided family events or interactions due to a fear of experiencing panic attacks, consider talking to your family about your agoraphobia. Here’s how to explain the disorder.
A challenging aspect of having a mental health disorder is approaching the topic for the first time with family members. Whether they’re a parent, sibling, spouse or child, these individuals likely hold a vital place in your life, and opening up about a mental condition is a moment of vulnerability. You may fear rejection or a lack of understanding from the people whom you care about most. However, hiding your struggle from your family can damage your relationships and provide more stress for yourself.
Opening Up About Your Agoraphobia
Opening up to your family members about your agoraphobia could help them understand some of your behaviors. The first step is explaining the disorder. Agoraphobia is a type of anxiety disorder, specifically an abnormal fear of multiple general environments caused by worrying that escape from an environment will be impossible if a panic attack occurs. People who have agoraphobia have regular panic attacks and fear them happening in places where they may feel embarrassed or be unable to calm themselves down. The fear of an attack occurring could be due to a traumatic experience in a specific place or a general fear of these types of attacks occurring in public areas.
While agoraphobia is similar to another type of anxiety disorder, a panic disorder, the condition is different in that it is specific to a fear of panic attacks occurring in specific situations. According to the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, 5th Edition (DSM-5), people must fear at least two of the following five situations to be diagnosed with agoraphobia:
- Using a bus, train or airplane
- Large open spaces
- Tight, enclosed spaces, such as an elevator
- Crowded areas, such as a mall or grocery store
- Being alone outside of the home
Detail the Effects of Agoraphobia
Once you explain the qualifications for having agoraphobia, you should detail the effects of the disorder and the impact it can have on your daily life. One of the primary effects of agoraphobia is avoiding any situation that someone fears will entrap them during a panic attack. If you have avoided specific environments or places due to your agoraphobia, you may have passed up opportunities to spend time with family members. If this avoidance is consistent, then your family may worry about your health and happiness but struggle to approach you about the topic or how they can help.
Your family members may have specific questions after you explain the disorder, including:
- What are panic attacks like?
- What causes the panic attacks?
- How long do panic attacks last?
- Can panic attacks be prevented, and if so, how?
- What treatment options are available for agoraphobia?
Each of these questions is valid and shows that your family is committed to supporting you. To help them understand when a panic attack occurs, these are the main symptoms:
- Chest pain
- Increased heart rate
- A loss of breath
- Intrusive anxiety
- Fear that death is imminent
Panic attacks can be caused by traumatic experiences or merely being in a specific environment, such as a crowded space or enclosed area. Panic attacks usually last between 10 and 30 minutes. However, some attacks have lasted longer and there is no absolute maximum length.
Help Them Understand How to Prevent Panic Attacks
One of the few ways to prevent a panic attack is to avoid a situation where one might occur. This act of avoidance is one of the main effects of agoraphobia and can significantly affect a person’s quality of life. If you experience a panic attack in the presence of family members, they can help you by:
- Counting deep breaths, which slows your heart rate and can diminish chest pains
- Using coping statements to fend off your anxious thoughts or fears of dying
- Distracting you, which can take your mind off of your panic attack
Explaining that you have agoraphobia and how the disorder impacts your behaviors could help your family understand why you might decline invitations to family events. Additionally, disclosing your agoraphobia to loved ones and detailing how they can help you may strengthen your relationships and result in more support from your family.
If you are struggling to open up to your family about your agoraphobia disorder, consider talking to your primary physician or a mental health professional about the best way to approach the topic. The Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration’s website includes a facility locator tool to help you find a nearby mental health resource. If your struggles with agoraphobia strain your relationships and cause substance abuse, call The Recovery Village to speak with a representative about treatment options for co-occurring disorders.
SAMHSA. “Behavioral Health Treatment Services Locator.” (n.d.) Accessed February 20, 2019.
The Recovery Village aims to improve the quality of life for people struggling with substance use or mental health disorder with fact-based content about the nature of behavioral health conditions, treatment options and their related outcomes. We publish material that is researched, cited, edited and reviewed by licensed medical professionals. The information we provide is not intended to be a substitute for professional medical advice, diagnosis or treatment. It should not be used in place of the advice of your physician or other qualified healthcare providers.