A Hidden Danger of the COVID-19 Pandemic: Agoraphobia

For nearly a year now, health professionals have warned that the COVID-19 pandemic could have serious mental health repercussions for people around the globe. The lockdown, economic crisis, and even the virus itself can trigger the onset of mental health disorders or exacerbate mental health issues that already exist. Fewer than one in five American adults report feeling confident about their money-saving habits, so fears around personal finances and job security can trigger severe anxiety. And individuals struggling with addiction, particularly if they’re in the early recovery phase, may experience high relapse rates.

For people suffering from agoraphobia, all the isolation and changes to daily life can be incredibly difficult to cope with. Let’s explore what agoraphobia is and why the pandemic is potentially worsening the symptoms.

What Is Agoraphobia?

Agoraphobia is often defined simply as a fear of leaving home. In a more complex sense, it’s an anxiety disorder that causes debilitating fear and avoidance of certain environments that might make the sufferer feel trapped. The disorder often manifests as a fear of leaving the house, but as with many conditions, it varies from person to person.

People with agoraphobia often experience panic attack symptoms in situations that make them feel uncomfortable. Symptoms may include:

  • Rapid heartbeat
  • Difficulty breathing
  • Chest pain or tightness
  • A sense of dread
  • Shaking or trembling
  • Upset stomach or nausea
  • Hot flashes

Not everyone who has been diagnosed with agoraphobia experiences these symptoms, but the common thread is a sense of extreme fear when in an environment that leads them to feel trapped, embarrassed, or out of control.

Anyone can develop agoraphobia, though some people are at a greater risk than others. Risk factors include:

  • Being biologically related to someone with this specific anxiety disorder
  • Having another anxiety disorder
  • Being female
  • Being under the age of 35
  • Unusual stress or trauma

The Pandemic as a Stressor

For those already at risk for developing agoraphobia, the current pandemic could be considered an unusual stress or trauma that triggers the onset of the anxiety disorder. The global health crisis and quarantine have led to extreme uncertainty. Unsure how other people will act in public and faced with the introduction of new safety guidelines, anyone can become understandably anxious. But this uncertainty can cause extreme fear in individuals experiencing or at risk for agoraphobia.

Since the pandemic has forced the population to self-isolate, health professionals warn that it may become harder to treat individuals who are already suffering from agoraphobia.

Dr. Samuel Nordberg, Chief of Reliant’s Department of Behavioral Health, said, “For those patients who have made progress with their agoraphobia using exposure therapy, the recent lockdowns and Covid-19 restrictions may have interrupted their progress. Although they’ve worked hard to overcome their fear of public places, the recent social isolation they’ve experienced has them worried about losing some of the progress they’ve made.”

Additionally, some health professionals believe that as lockdown restrictions are scaled back, some people may struggle to readjust to normal life. According to Dr. Nordberg, since people have been so scared of contracting or spreading the virus, symptoms of agoraphobia and other anxiety disorders could crop up as they attempt to restart their regular routines. That fear doesn’t go away overnight, regardless of reports of reduced infection rates.

There are rational fears that most people share, like catching COVID-19 or getting in a car accident. In the past, an average of more than 5.9 million motor vehicle accidents occurred on U.S. roads every year; however, with fewer people commuting and leaving their homes, in general, car accidents are arguably less of a threat than they once were. But then there are fears of less tangible phenomena – that’s where anxiety disorders like agoraphobia come in. According to the National Institute of Mental Health, over 19% of all American adults experience at least one anxiety disorder during a 12-month period. If you are experiencing a mental health issue, it’s essential to address this with your primary care provider and get help.