The COVID-19 pandemic can trigger anxious feelings in anyone. However, people with an anxiety disorder such as agoraphobia may find that the pandemic has heightened their anxiety even further.
Agoraphobia is a type of anxiety disorder. It involves an intense fear of a place or situation where escape may be difficult. This may cause a person to avoid crowded areas or other public spaces outside of the home.
In people with agoraphobia, the brain cannot tell the difference between perceived fear and actual danger.
According to the National Institute of Mental Health (NIMH), 1.3% of adults in the United States experience agoraphobia at some point in their lifetime.
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) note that the current pandemic may be stressful for everyone.
However, certain groups are likely to be at higher risk of stress from the outbreak, including people with agoraphobia. The current situation can affect people with this condition differently.
For example, some people with agoraphobia may find that physical distancing provides relief, as it discourages situations that may trigger fear.
Others may find that physical distancing measures and the uncertainty of other people’s actions may trigger their anxiety even more. This may especially affect those who need to leave the home for any reason.
According to the Anxiety and Depression Association of America, people with agoraphobia who have more severe worries during the COVID-19 pandemic may have them for several reasons.
For example, a person with agoraphobia may experience more worries during the current situation due to:
- support being less readily available
- the fact that certain COVID-19 symptoms, such as shortness of breath or difficulty breathing, may be similar to those of a panic attack
- the fact that hearing words such as “quarantine” and “physical distancing” may trigger fears of being alone and cut off from help
- the general public anxiety and uncertainty about the future
- the increased risk of social isolation and potentially depression
- having even more anxiety than before when out in public
Frightening media stories about COVID-19 also add to the sense of fear that many people with agoraphobia experience.
The fact that not all people who have COVID-19 have obvious symptoms is another reason that many people feel more nervous at this time.
People with agoraphobia can take steps to cope with the extra pandemic-related anxiety and manage their mental health.
According to the NIMH, some tips and precautions may include:
- not following media sources that can increase feelings of anxiety
- joining an online support group or connecting with people digitally
- breathing slowly through the nose when a panic attack is starting
- stretching or meditating often
- eating healthful meals
- getting regular exercise
- getting a full night’s sleep
- setting time to unwind
- engaging in activities and hobbies that reduce anxiety
- setting goals and priorities, which allows routine and enables a person to see what they have accomplished
- focusing on the facts, because by understanding the actual risk, people can make the pandemic seem less stressful
A combination of medication and psychotherapy is the usual treatment for agoraphobia. Medications may include selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors, and psychotherapy may include cognitive behavioral therapy.
A person can also make some lifestyle changes that may help. These include:
- trying to avoid triggers, such as caffeine, alcohol, or tobacco products
- getting regular exercise
- getting enough sleep each night
- practicing relaxation techniques
- fighting one’s personal inclination to avoid all anxiety-provoking situations
Social support is also an important part of managing agoraphobia. During the COVID-19 pandemic, a person with this condition may find their social network strained.
However, there are some things they can do to stay in touch with others, such as joining an online support group and using phone or video calls to contact family and friends.
The CDC suggest connecting with others to manage stress.
A 2018 study in the Australian and New Zealand Journal of Psychiatry supports this. The study found that social connectedness is crucial to good health. It also found that people with fewer social connections have poorer mental and physical health.
Agoraphobia can develop as a result of a panic attack that occurred in a particular situation. The person may fear another panic attack if they encounter the same situation in a similar environment.
People may wish to look into treatment options for panic attacks when they start to occur. Early treatment can help prevent agoraphobia.
A person should also seek help if they find that they experience high levels of stress or anxiety related to certain places or situations. A healthcare professional can provide a formal diagnosis and treatment recommendations, or they may refer a person to a specialist.
People should also seek more help if they find that certain treatments or therapies are no longer effective for them. A healthcare professional can work with the person to find different strategies to cope with agoraphobia.
It is also important for a person to contact a healthcare professional if they or someone they live with develops symptoms of COVID-19.
According to the CDC, the most common symptoms of COVID-19 are a cough and shortness of breath or difficulty breathing.
People with at least two of the following symptoms may also have COVID-19:
- muscle pain
- a new loss of taste or smell
- a fever
- repeated shaking with chills
- a sore throat
- a headache
Living with agoraphobia can be stressful. During a pandemic, people with agoraphobia may find that they have increased feelings of anxiety.
People can take steps to reduce their anxiety by seeking online support, avoiding certain media stories, and reminding themselves that the increased sense of fear does not pose an imminent threat to their body.
People with agoraphobia should try to reach out for support when they need it, especially during a pandemic.