This Mental Illness is Very Common — But You’ve Probably Never Heard of It

Mental illness is extremely real. Mental health disorders such as anxiety and depression affect millions of people each year. You’ve likely heard of anxiety, but there are many different types, and most of them are never talked about. However, one form often misleads those who have it into thinking they have generalized anxiety disorder (GAD), claustrophobia, or social anxiety, when it’s actually something very different: Agoraphobia.

mental health disorder

Living with an undiagnosed mental health disorder can diminish your quality of life. | iStock.com/Viktor_Gladkov

What is agoraphobia?

Agoraphobia is derived from the word “agora,” which translates to “market place” in Greek. Agoraphobia is essentially “a fear of the market place.” But it’s much more complex than that. The disorder is named as such because it refers to a fear of situations that would be difficult to escape, which, when you think about it, could be any situation ever.

The disorder usually develops after someone has a panic attack that triggers a sudden phobia of a certain situation. For example: You’re attending your artist’s favorite concert. You’re among thousands of people when you suddenly begin to panic and realize you have no easy means of escape. This type of panic attack can trigger a recurring fear of crowded spaces because to you, crowded spaces are associated with having no easy escape route.

Agoraphobia can extend to other areas as well. It may start with a panic attack at a concert but extend itself to other areas where you feel you have no means of escape, such as bridges, elevators, or any type of crowd (such as a crowded market place, hence the name). It’s important to understand that agoraphobia is not the same as claustrophobia (a fear of confined places).

Here’s why you might confuse it for a different form of anxiety

Agoraphobia can present itself in many different situations, leading you to believe that you have a generalized anxiety disorder, or an overwhelming, general worry about life. It may happen to you around crowds, such as at a concert or a party, and lead you to believe you have social anxiety. Or, it may be triggered by things such as crowded rooms and elevators — confined spaces where you have no escape — and lead you to believe you have claustrophobia.

But agoraphobia is its own mental illness, and while it’s blanketed by the over-arching anxiety disorder, it is very much its own thing. And it affects many people.

It affects nearly two million Americans

An estimated 1.8 million Americans live with agoraphobia, and those are only the ones who are aware that they have it. If you believe your worry is something else, such as claustrophobia or GAD, you may overlook the possibility of having agoraphobia. In reality, there are probably many more people who deal with it, but they’re unaware.

Studies suggest that one in five adults in the U.S., or almost 44 million people, deal with some type of mental illness. However, those statistics don’t account for those who suffer in silence. Agoraphobia can be a confusing illness because it doesn’t always have a rhyme or reason. You may feel discomfort in a crowd, but also in a locked room or elevator, on a plane, or even in a wide open space, such as on a beach full of people. It’s hard to self-diagnose since it presents itself in many different ways, so the best way to get a confirmed diagnosis and solid treatment is to speak with a counselor or therapist.

There is no cure, but there are various types of treatment that can help manage it

If you think you may be living with agoraphobia, the thought of there not being a cure can be daunting. However, mental illnesses in general do not come with definitive cures. But various treatments can be introduced and utilized in order to find the one that works best or your disorder.

With agoraphobia, exposure therapy is common. A therapist might suggest that you intentionally insert yourself in anxiety-inducing situations, so you can walk yourself through the experience and understand that you will be okay. For example, if you have anxiety while on elevators, you can ride an elevator up and down several times and several days in a row. You will realize there is no danger, and your mind will adjust to that and learn to think differently.

Another form of treatment is cognitive behavioral therapy, or CBT. It’s the idea of changing the way your brain thinks about certain situations by talking through the situation with a therapist. “What’s the worst that could happen?” is essentially the conclusion your therapy wants you to reach. Talking through the situation teaches your brain that it wasn’t as dangerous as you thought.

Medication is also an option for those with agoraphobia. It’s often not used until the other options are exhausted, but if you need to take anxiety medication to help deal with your symptoms, there is nothing wrong with that. Plenty of anxiety medications help relieve symptoms without many side effects. Also, medication is sometimes used for a while, then, in combination with therapy, the patient is weaned off of the medication and learns to live a fully functional life without any medicinal aid.

If you think you may be dealing with any kind of mental health disorder, it’s important to tell someone. Inform a family member or friend, and seek treatment options from a licensed specialist.

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