Individuals who struggle with agoraphobia, or the fear of not being able to escape a situation, may turn to alcohol or drug use as a way to suppress their symptoms of anxiety. These mind-altering substances may temporarily ease anxiety and increase the individual’s social activity. Unfortunately, with repeated use, they can serve to make anxiety symptoms worse.
Drug Abuse as a Hindrance to Agoraphobia Treatment
Individuals with agoraphobia become so paralyzed with fear at the thought of a panic attack they become imprisoned in their own homes or other places where they feel comfortable and protected. Many people who have agoraphobia use drugs and alcohol to manage their anxiety.
Temporary effects of alcohol or drug use may include a short-term relief of symptoms through relaxation. However, it is common for the symptoms of agoraphobia to worsen with some illicit drug use. Either way, substance abuse can make treatment impossible with continued drug or alcohol use. Most times, when an individual is seeking treatment, the use of drugs or alcohol will cause them to forgo treatment.
Effects of Substance Abuse on Agoraphobia Symptoms
Drugs and alcohol change the way chemical messengers and signals are sent throughout the brain and central nervous system. While using substances, an individual may feel more able to handle tough situations and go places they were afraid to before. This will only mask the symptoms for a short period of time, creating havoc for the individual once the substance wears off, including hangovers, feelings of depression, heightened anxiety, physical pain and discomfort.
Regular interference of alcohol and drugs can cause the brain to stop making and transmitting chemical messengers the same way it did before. When the substances wear off, anxiety may return even greater than it was before, as levels of the naturally occurring neurotransmitters are lower than they once were. This is an uncomfortable period when the brain must restore itself and is referred to as withdrawal.
Statistics on Agoraphobia and Drug Abuse
Each year, approximately 20 million Americans aged 12 and older suffer from a substance use disorder. More than eight million will have co-occurring substance use disorders and mental health disorders, and about one-third of those who develop agoraphobia will be included in this group.
Agoraphobia and Alcohol
The occasional nightcap to unwind or a couple of celebratory drinks during a social gathering are usually not problematic and may even be considered socially customary. However, if a person has a panic disorder or another anxiety disorder, alcohol use may become a problem. Many studies show an increasing correlation between phobia disorders and alcohol abuse disorders.
Alcohol is a drug that depresses the central nervous system. Initially, alcohol consumption has a sedative effect and produces a sense of euphoria and decreased inhibitions, seemingly providing relief from anxiety caused by the agoraphobia. Unfortunately, long-term effects of alcohol abuse are not so pleasant. Chronic alcohol abuse may result in tolerance, dependency and damage to many organs of the body, including the brain, liver and heart.
For individuals with agoraphobia, alcohol consumption becomes a crutch in social situations where drinking is available. Another problem is that long-term alcohol abuse usually means building a tolerance to its effects. This results in increased alcohol consumption to get the desired result.
Marijuana Abuse and Agoraphobia
Marijuana is a substance often used by people who self-medicate to relax and calm their fears and anxiety that are attached to agoraphobia. Marijuana can cause elevated pulse and heart rate, reduced blood pressure and lightheadedness. The most frequent undesired side effect of occasional marijuana use is anxiety, which can quickly add to the already present fears. The temporary high will wear off, leaving the individual with a need to feel relief once again.
Agoraphobia and Stimulants
Stimulant drugs arouse the central nervous system which activates a stress response, generating more fear and anxiety. Increased heartbeat, dizziness and palpitations alone can create anxiety, intensifying the dreadful symptoms of agoraphobia.
Stimulants can create permanent changes in the way nerve cells communicate and alter emotional regulation. When the stimulants finally leave the bloodstream, neurotransmitter levels will lower, increasing symptoms of anxiety and panic. Anxiety and panic are characteristic of stimulant withdrawal.
Drug Abuse as a Cause of Agoraphobia
Common side effects of alcohol or drug use include anxiety and panic. It is possible for an individual to develop agoraphobia and other fears because of drug or alcohol abuse. When an individual becomes dependent on a substance, their risk of anxiety increases. These symptoms are present while an individual is using drugs but can also remain for a period after the person stops using the drug, while the brain is restructuring itself.
Treatments for Agoraphobia with Co-Occurring Substance Use Disorders
During treatment for co-occurring agoraphobia and drug or alcohol addictions, individuals may receive treatment for both disorders simultaneously. Most treatments will require that the individual attend group and individual therapy sessions. During these sessions, new skills and coping mechanisms are developed. These behavioral style therapies can help to retrain the way the individual thinks, therefore altering behaviors that may be self-destructive or have negative consequences.
Self-help methods and education about the disorders can also help the individuals learn how to become more self-reliant and manage stress without the use of drugs or alcohol. As individuals learn to better understand themselves and their own potential stressors, both disorders can be effectively managed and treated.
If you or a loved one needs treatment for a substance use disorder and a co-occurring anxiety disorder like agoraphobia, The Recovery Village can help. Individuals who struggle with drug or alcohol addiction and co-occurring agoraphobia disorder symptoms can receive help from one of the facilities located across the country. If you or a loved one suffers from addiction and co-occurring agoraphobia, call The Recovery Village to speak with a representative.
Medical Disclaimer: The Recovery Village aims to improve the quality of life for people struggling with a 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 provider.