The term agoraphobia has been widely misunderstood. Its literal definition suggests a fear of "open spaces". In fact, agoraphobia is a condition which develops when a person begins to avoid spaces or situations associated with anxiety.
Agoraphobia arises; from an internal anxiety condition that has become so intense that the suffering individual fears going anywhere or doing anything where these feelings of panic have repeatedly occurred before. Once the panic attacks have started, these episodes become the ongoing stress, even when other more obvious pressures have diminished. This sets up a "feedback condition" which generally leads to increased numbers of panic attacks and, for some people, an increase in the situations or events which can produce panicky feelings.
A person may fear having anxiety attacks, "losing control", or embarrassing him/herself in such situations. Many people remain in a painful state of anxious anticipation because of these fears. Some become restricted or "housebound" while others function "normally" but with great difficulty, often attempting to hide their discomfort.
Agoraphobia, then, is both a severe anxiety condition and a phobia, as well as a pattern of avoidant behavior.
How Does Agoraphobia Develop?
Agoraphobia develops after a person has experienced an individual, or series of, panic attacks. The person associates the panic with the place where it occured, and that place is considered as no longer being safe. As the "safe" zones dwindle, the person becomes more and more restricted to those few places that are still considered safe; often the only zone which remains after continued panic attacks is the person's own home. If panic attacks begin to occur inside the home, then the person's space is further restricted, sometimes to an individual room.
An agoraphobic does not only avoid places where panic has occured. They can also avoid activities or actions that have been anxiety-producing. A few examples of these would be: answering or talking on the telephone, listening to the radio or watching tv, allowing visitors into their home or safe place.
Agoraphobics can also fear situations that produce feelings of "being trapped". Standing in a line at a store, attending an event, movie or family gathering, or even stopping at a gas station to fill up their tank, are examples of situations where an agoraphobic might feel their early departure, should an attack occur, might draw attention to themselves, and therefore are also to be avoided.
What Agoraphobics Want Others To Know:
- They cannot explain why they are afraid...they just are.
- They are not "mental" or "crazy." Agoraphobia is a recognizable, legitimate disability.
- They cannot "just do it", not for you or for anyone else. It has to be safe for THEM.
- Safety zones can change. What may have been safe one day will not necessarily be safe on another day.
- Cajoling, persuading only produces more anxiety when you do it. Please don't.
- To feel safe with someone, the agoraphobic MUST know that their disabilty is accepted and they are free to express their fear, withdraw for a while, or completely leave the situation/place without explanation other than "I need to leave now."
Can Agoraphobia Be Cured?
Yes. Through medication, counseling and desensitization techniques, an agoraphobic can learn to accept their fears and overcome them. The length of treatment varies from one agoraphobic to the next.