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3 Biggest Myths About Agoraphobia

woman with agoraphobia looks out window
By LifeStance Health on October 24, 2022

This content has been updated from previous article on February 3, 2021.

About 1% of adults in the United States lives with agoraphobia. This is about the same number of people who live with Generalized Anxiety Disorder, which is more common and understood. New pandemic-driven social patterns, including the rise of remote work and contactless home deliveries may be worsened agoraphobia in some sufferers. However, agoraphobia has a hereditary component as Kim Bassinger and her daughter Ireland Baldwin recently revealed their journey living with the disorder. Perhaps because of media portrayals of the disorder, the general public seems to have serious misunderstandings about agoraphobia.

As with many mental health disorders, the myths surrounding agoraphobia make it more difficult for people with the disorder to get treatment. They may believe they do not need help because their symptoms are not what they see on television. Or they could find that others will think they are “crazy,” so they never find out how to overcome agoraphobia. Spreading awareness about agoraphobia and busting the myths can help.

What Does Agoraphobia Mean?

Agoraphobia is an anxiety disorder that causes the intense and overwhelming fear of situations in which a person may be embarrassed or helpless. Agoraphobia is not the fear of leaving home, though it can lead to people being homebound.

One challenge with understanding agoraphobia currently is that it can only be diagnosed when someone has experienced at least six months of severe symptoms. These severe symptoms regularly impact daily life and are not one time or occasional stressful situations. Because of this long observation period, it may be too soon to know whether the pandemic has increased rates of agoraphobia.

Typically, people with agoraphobia experience panic in situations where they may lose a sense of control. For example, they may avoid public transportation because they are not in control of the vehicle.

People with agoraphobia may also avoid:

  • Enclosed spaces such as movie theaters and elevators
  • Open spaces like fields, lakes, and parking lots
  • Any areas where crowds gather
  • Long lines

Often, someone had a panic attack in such a situation and was unable to leave. Then, they live in fear of panic attacks happening again. While anxiety disorders tend to be expressed in families, the pandemic has created a situation where it is difficult to parse agoraphobia from home bodies. Additionally, agoraphobia can develop through learned behaviors in childhood. There is some concern among therapists that the pandemic has normalized some aspects of agoraphobia including staying at home, avoiding certain locations, and reducing socializing with friends and family. Living through these new social norms as children could affect their developmental growth and make them more susceptible to anxiety disorders later in life.

Myth 1: It’s All in Your Head

Perhaps one of the most pervasive and harmful myths about any mental health disorder is the idea that patients are faking their symptoms in some way. For example, people may say that it’s “all in your head” or tell people with agoraphobia to “just calm down.” Whether well-meaning or not, these sayings are harmful to people with the disorder.

Agoraphobia is an anxiety disorder. It is a real, serious condition that can cause both physical and emotional anguish. Furthermore, to qualify for a diagnosis, the symptoms must keep patients from living their full lives. As such, people with agoraphobia are not lazy or merely unwilling to socialize.

Myth 2: People with Agoraphobia Never Leave Home

When people think of agoraphobia, they often describe someone who never walks past their front door and shutters all the windows. In some severe cases, people with agoraphobia may live in situations like this. However, others leave home under specific conditions.

For example, someone with mild or moderate agoraphobia may have their worst symptoms in crowds and standing in line. So, such a person may avoid events with large groups and the grocery store. They could order grocery delivery and watch entertainment on their own televisions. However, they leave their houses for work and to visit friends.

Every person with agoraphobia experiences the disorder differently. As such, it’s important not to paint all patients with the same brush. People with severe fears of just one of the situations in agoraphobia deserve treatment as much as someone who never leaves home.

Myth 3: People With Agoraphobia Cannot Get Better

Sadly, many people with the symptoms of agoraphobia believe there is no way to heal. They may think that they will feel this anxiety forever. Perhaps because they don’t have a name for it or maybe because they don’t know how to get over agoraphobia, they resign to a limited life.

The truth is that agoraphobia treatment plans are more varied and effective than ever. Researchers continue to learn more about the disorder and what helps patients heal. Patients can do simple things every day to lessen their anxiety or choose options like online therapy for agoraphobia to make treatment more convenient. There is hope.

Exposure therapy is often considered the best treatment for agoraphobia, whether this is done for those who are not officially diagnosed or those under the care of a mental health professional. Another way of describing exposure therapy in laymen’s terms is to push against personal boundaries or expressed anxieties if new avoidance tendencies have developed during the pandemic. Identify the source of the anxiety. For example, if eating at crowded restaurants starts to feel uncomfortable, consider finding a table further away from the action.

In cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT), counselors help patients do this by slowly reintroducing triggering situations into their lives, like entering a supermarket or boarding planes. What pushing boundaries and CBT teaches the body and mind is that it doesn’t have to be afraid of these situations but to accept them as a stressful but tolerable part of modern life. Over time and repeated exposure, patients begin to feel that they are safe and the crippling anxiety subsides.

In some extreme cases, medication may be necessary to treat agoraphobia and coexisting conditions, such as panic disorder. Typically, psychiatric medications can work in tandem with therapy and allow the mind to relax enough to let the therapy work.