What Exactly Is Agoraphobia & Why Is Everyone Talking About It?

The COVID-19 pandemic has taken a toll on many areas of our lives, including our mental health. According to a new report by the American Psychological Association, 49% of people surveyed felt "uneasy" about going back to standard, in-person interactions after quarantine.

For about 2% of the U.S. population, or almost 6 million people, this unease is more than just a minor fear — it's a panic disorder that can take over your life. In some extreme cases, people with panic disorders can also develop what is known as "agoraphobia."

What Is Agoraphobia?

Agoraphobia is a type of anxiety disorder in which crowds and public spaces make you feel helpless or trapped. According to the Mayo Clinic, people with agoraphobia fear "an actual or anticipated situation, such as using public transportation, being in open or enclosed spaces, standing in line, or being in a crowd."

Kim Kardashian recently spoke about how the COVID-19 pandemic re-triggered the anxiety and agoraphobia she developed after being robbed at gunpoint in Paris a few years ago.

"I feel like I had agoraphobia definitely after my robbery in Paris," the SKIMS founder told her sister, Khloe, on a recent episode of Keeping Up With the Kardashians. "Like definitely would stay in, hated to go out, I didn't want anybody to know where I was and didn't want to be seen. I just had such anxiety."

The condition is also a central theme in Netflix's recent movie "The Woman in the Window," starring Amy Adams. Her character, Anna Fox, is too afraid to leave her apartment and therefore watches the lives and movements of neighbors from her second-story window.

Unfortunately, less than 10% of cases go away on their own without professional treatment. If you think you might be suffering from agoraphobia, or you recognize the symptoms in a loved one, it's important to talk with a mental health professional. Here's what to know:

What Are the Symptoms of Agoraphobia?

People with agoraphobia often experience panic attacks, which can include a number of physical symptoms including chest pain, shortness of breath, dizziness, sweating, and nausea.

In order to avoid a panic attack, people with agoraphobia:

  • Avoid leaving home
  • Avoid crowds
  • Stay away from public spaces
  • Are often estranged from friends and family
  • Stay away from elevators or places where you can become "trapped"

Who Is At Risk of Having Agoraphobia?

Most people are not born with agoraphobia. It develops over time, often beginning in the mid-20s and peaking in middle age. Women are more likely to be diagnosed with agoraphobia than men. The most significant risk factor is recurrent unexpected panic attacks, but people with a family history of anxiety or mood disorders, and people going through life transitions, are also at a greater risk.

Harvard Health suggests asking yourself these questions:

  • Is my response in line with the potential threat of danger?
  • Are my loved ones concerned about my level of worry and avoidance?
  • Am I avoiding more people and situations than necessary?

How Is Agoraphobia Treated?

There are numerous professional treatments for agoraphobia including talk therapy, cognitive behavioral therapy, and exposure therapy — the latter of which exposes you to the situations you want to avoid, therefore reducing your fear over time. While that can sound scary for someone who is actively avoiding these situations, the introduction to the environment in a controlled and safe way with a therapist could be exactly what is needed to treat the condition.

Antidepressants and anti-anxiety medications are also sometimes used to treat agoraphobia. Consult with your doctor before taking any medication.

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Personal photos courtesy of Dr.Oz

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