How Does Agoraphobia Treatment Work?
According to the NIMH, “Agoraphobia involves intense fear and anxiety of any place or situation where escape might be difficult, leading to avoidance of situations such as being alone outside the home; traveling in a car, bus, or airplane; or being in a crowded area.” In many cases, the disorder itself may stem from untreated panic disorder.
The NIMH states that 1.4% of the US adult population experiences lifetime prevalence of the disorder. While it can cause a number of extreme side effects and many individuals even become unable to leave their homes at all, treatments do exist for agoraphobia. But how do they work?
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An Effective Treatment Regimen
Like in the case of addiction and other psychological disorders, the use of medications and therapy together are able to most often create an effective treatment regimen for agoraphobia. The disorder can become extremely intense, but it can be overcome, especially with the right treatments. These two treatment types (as well as some other, self-motivated options) can be used together to create a more well-rounded program for those looking to recover from severe agoraphobia.
Treatment Type: Medication
According to the NLM, there are several types of medications that a doctor may decide to use in order to treat agoraphobia. Depending on the individual, one medication may be more effective than another. Still, all of these drugs have been found to be beneficial to individuals with this disorder. They include:
- SSRIs or selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors
- SNRIs or serotonin-nonrepinephrine reuptake inhibitors
- Anti-seizure drugs
Clearly, not all of these medications need to be taken at the same time, but a combination can be effective in the case of some individuals. Antidepressants are the most commonly used medication for this disorder; this is because many other anxiety disorders are treated the same way. These conditions are often treated with antidepressants because the medication balances out a person’s emotions and controls serotonin. While this chemical in the brain helps decrease depression, it also regulates nervousness, fear, and anxiety, which is why antidepressants are so often used to treat different anxiety disorders, including agoraphobia.
Anti-seizure drugs are only used in very rare cases where an individual’s agoraphobia is extremely intense. These drugs may be necessary when a person’s anxiety becomes so intense that they undergo seizures when threatened with leaving their comfort zone. These can sometimes be a part of severe panic attacks, which is why they will need to be treated if they occur.
Benzodiazepines are often used at the beginning of treatment when an individual has not experienced any benefits as of yet from the antidepressants. “For example, your health care provider may recommend benzodiazepines when antidepressants do not help or before they take effect.” Benzodiazepines can help promote calmness and relaxation which can take the place of antidepressants for a while.
This means a person may need to take more than one medication at a time or their prescriptions may change over the course of treatment. However, medication does do a great deal in treating and managing agoraphobia and its symptoms.
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Cognitive-behavioral therapy is the most commonly used therapeutic treatment for agoraphobia. It “involves 10 to 20 visits with a mental health professional over a number of weeks.” The treatment works by
- Allowing the individual to change the way they think about their disorder
- Helping them to understand and control “distorted feelings or views of stressful events or situations”
- Teaching them relaxation techniques, such as:
- Consciously slowing their breathing and concentrating “on expanding [the] abdomen, not [the] chest, with every inhalation” (Better Health Channel)
- Asking patients to imagine what they fear in a safe place so that they can, eventually, learn to be less afraid
- Helping the individual consider why they may have started to become so afraid in the first place and where the origin of their agoraphobia lies
In some cases, “you may also be slowly exposed to the real-life situation that causes the fear to help you overcome it.” This is a very beneficial treatment method called exposure therapy that helps patients face their concerns in a controlled environment. It is the same method that is often used with panic disorder and specific phobias. The patient is asked to go to a place that scares them with someone they trust and to practice their breathing and relaxation exercises. Over time, the place will no longer have a hold on them through fear.
Treatment: Support Groups
Many support groups exist for individuals suffering from agoraphobia and anxiety disorders in general. These groups sometimes meet in person but may often meet online, given the state of many individuals who are in need of membership. While these groups are not always considered to be formal, medical treatment, they can often be helpful and many clinicians encourage patients with agoraphobia to pursue them.
These groups help individuals through support, encouragement, and togetherness, allowing those who suffer from agoraphobia to feel less alone in their fears. Group therapy is a similar concept but meetings are often run by a licensed counselor, whereas support groups are normally led by another individual who has gone through the particular disorder being discussed.
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There are many self-help methods taught within treatment centers and therapy sessions in order to help individuals continue fighting their agoraphobia even after treatment has ended. These can include:
- Getting more exercise.
- Sleeping a regular amount.
- Eating healthy foods.
- Taking care of one’s personal hygiene.
- Practicing breathing and relaxation techniques.
- Avoiding dangerous or mind-altering substances.
When you are able to participate in these self-help techniques as well as those given by a doctor, your recovery will often be stronger and it will be less likely that your agoraphobia may begin to return. Practicing healthy living habits will increase your chance of living healthier, in your mind and body, and avoiding anxious feelings. Also, making sure that you follow these rules will help you continue to go out of your way to stay healthy, making you less likely to avoid life which agoraphobia so often causes people to do.