Agoraphobia is an anxiety disorder. The primary symptom of agoraphobia is being fearful or even feeling panic in a situation where it would be difficult to escape, or where help might not be readily available if something were to happen.
Agoraphobia is often mischaracterized as being a fear of open spaces. However, agoraphobia is more complicated than that. For example, people with agoraphobia may be afraid of public transportation, shopping complexes or leaving home in general. Other fears someone with agoraphobia may experience include crowds, waiting in line, elevators and bridges.
Agoraphobia is considered a complication of a panic disorder. Panic disorders are a type of anxiety disorders in which a person has intense fear and terror that can lead to physical and psychological symptoms known as panic attacks. Even so, not all people with agoraphobia have an existing history of a panic disorder or panic attacks.
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How to Recognize Agoraphobia
Whether you feel you could have agoraphobia or you believe you recognize the symptoms of this anxiety disorder in a friend or loved one, it can be extremely frightening and even debilitating. Some of the sign and symptoms of agoraphobia can include:
- Often avoiding certain places or situations
- Experiencing stress or discomfort when leaving the house or being in certain situations
- Using avoidance strategies such as having someone else go to stores for you to avoid triggers
- Someone with agoraphobia will experience a sense of fear that’s disproportionate with the situation happening
- The fear or phobias will last for six months or more in most people with agoraphobia
- While many people with agoraphobia will try and avoid the places and situations that cause them fear, if they do encounter them they will often become upset or have extreme anxiety
- Physical symptoms of intense anxiety and panic can include sweating, problems breathing, trembling, chest pain and dizziness
7 Steps to Help Ease Agoraphobia
No one wants to have to go through life with the challenges of agoraphobia. Untreated agoraphobia can significantly diminish someone’s quality of life. This anxiety disorder can cause someone to feel like they can only go places with another person or not at all. It can cause problems with relationships and at work. Untreated agoraphobia can lead to complications including isolation, depression and substance abuse.
If you have a friend or loved one who you believe lives with agoraphobia, you may want to help them. You can’t provide that person with treatment—they have to do that on their own and with the help of a professional. There are steps you can take as a support system for them, however.
1. Learn More
Agoraphobia is a complex and often misunderstood anxiety disorder. One of the best ways to help a friend or loved one that you believe has the disorder is to learn more and educate yourself.
It can be helpful to learn the triggers for agoraphobia and the physical and mental symptoms someone might experience if they have agoraphobia. In addition to informational resources, reading blog posts and articles from people who have it can help you gain a sense of perspective that will allow you to be understanding and empathetic.
2. Practice Patience
No one wants to experience an anxiety disorder like agoraphobia. It’s often traumatic and overwhelming. As a friend or loved one, you can learn how to practice a sense of patience. You may not be able to relate to what a person is feeling, but you can still show them a sense of understanding.
3. Don’t Trivialize the Person’s Feelings and Experiences
When someone has anxiety or panic disorder and they have friends and loved ones who don’t live with a similar condition, it can be easy to trivialize it or marginalize someone and the symptoms they are feeling.
We often hear people with mental health disorders being told to “get over it” or to “toughen up.” This isn’t an effective approach and it can make the situation much more traumatic and frustrating for someone with agoraphobia. Agoraphobia symptoms aren’t in the control of someone with the disorder and it’s not a weakness or a personal failure. Having friends who understand that is critical to someone’s treatment.
4. Help Your Friend Create An Anxiety Plan
There is a concept called My Anxiety Plan (MAP). The concept comes from an organization called Anxiety Canada. The process for creating a MAP relies on creating a set of steps and strategies that can be used to deal with symptoms of anxiety disorders.
You can encourage your friend or loved one to create their MAP or a similar plan for how they will deal with and manage their symptoms of agoraphobia as they occur. You may be the first one to introduce the person to the concept of developing a defined strategy for coping with symptoms of anxiety or the triggers that can lead to agoraphobia symptoms.
5. Be a Support System
People with anxiety disorders tend to find significant value in having a strong support system. Let your friend know that you are there for them to listen and have them share what they’re feeling. Try to create a judgment-free environment for your friend so that they can come to you without feeling ashamed or embarrassed.
This doesn’t mean you have to understand everything that your friend is feeling, but just that you’re willing to listen in a supportive way.
You can also be a support system by going with your friend or loved one to situations where they may feel panic. This doesn’t mean that you become a crutch for them, instead, you can encourage them to face the situations that they would typically avoid and they can rely on you for support when they begin to feel symptoms of distress or panic.
6. Regularly Check-In
Even when your friend or someone you care about isn’t in a situation where they’re fearful, or they aren’t experiencing acute symptoms of agoraphobia, it can be helpful for them to know you care.
Regularly check-in, even if it’s just a quick text or phone call and see how your friend’s doing. This reinforces the idea that you are a support system.
7. Encourage Them to Seek Professional Treatment
Agoraphobia is a serious, debilitating condition for many people who live with it. It often requires professional treatment, which can come in the form of psychotherapy, medication, alternative treatments or a combination of approaches.
Learn more about the treatment options available for agoraphobia and encourage your friend to get professional help to improve their quality of life and avoid complications resulting from letting their disorder go untreated.
How To Talk To Your Friend About Getting Treatment
You may be intimidated to speak with your friend about their anxiety disorder and the need for treatment. The first step to talking about treatment is educating yourself not only about the symptoms and experience of agoraphobia but also treatment approaches. Educating yourself helps you come from an informative standpoint when you do open up the discussion.
You can even help them locate a therapist who specializes in agoraphobia and you may volunteer to drive them to their first appointment. You, of course, can’t force another person into treatment, but if you show that you’re willing to help them in any way, it can serve as a form of encouragement.
It’s not up to you to treat your friend or loved one’s agoraphobia, but there are steps you can take to be supportive and help encourage them to seek treatment. Open and honest but non-judgmental communication are good starting points.