Anxiety is nature’s way of preparing us to handle difficult situations. That’s why occasional anxiety is no problem – it’s healthy, even. But when run-of-the-mill nerves become irrational, chronic, or overwhelming, an anxiety disorder may be at play.
Anxiety disorders are the most common type of mental health condition, according to research published in Dialogues in Clinical Neuroscience. An estimated 33.7 per cent of the population experiences an anxiety disorder at some point in their lifetime.
Still, anxiety disorders can manifest in different ways, explains clinical therapist, Dr Joshua Estrin, who specialises in anxiety treatment. Some people experience generalised anxiety, or a persistent worry about everyday issues and situations. Others may develop what he calls more focused anxiety symptoms, like agoraphobia.
What is agoraphobia?
Most adults struggling with agoraphobia follow one of two common patterns, explains psychologist, Dr Peggy Loo. “One is often an extreme worry that they cannot leave the situation they’re in by their own free will, getting stuck,” she says.
Others experience a disproportionate fear that something negative will occur while in a situation they have no control over – like having a panic attack or getting sick – and they won’t be able to get help or escape. “Sometimes agoraphobia may develop after a real-world negative experience you are worried about happening again, but sometimes the perceived threat alone is enough to create debilitating anxiety.”
An individual with agoraphobia will often avoid certain places and situations or even opt never to leave the house without company, Dr Loo says. This avoidance behaviour is one reason the condition gets confused with its cousin, social anxiety, which triggers an intense fear or anxiety related to social situations, particularly over being judged, embarrassed, or criticised by others.
What are the symptoms of agoraphobia?
Diagnostically, a person with agoraphobia has an intense fear response when they’re in (or sometimes just when they’re anticipating) at least two of the following situations: using public transportation, being in open spaces, being in enclosed spaces, standing in lines or crowds, being outside of the home alone. “Even the thought of being in a certain situation can cause someone to literally feel crippled, trapped, immobilised,” Estrin says.
Physical symptoms tend to show up following this abrupt surge of intense fear or discomfort, says psychotherapist, Laurie Singer. “They reach a peak within minutes and, typically, present four or more physical symptoms which can include: [heart] palpitations, sweating, trembling or shaking, a shortness of breath, the feeling of being smothered or choked, chest pain, nausea, or feeling dizzy and faint.”