COVID-19 And The Fear Of Going Out
Some people have been so worried about COVID-19 for so long that it could spark symptoms of agoraphobia and other anxiety disorders.
A third to half of people with agoraphobia have had panic attacks prior to diagnosis.
For many months, COVID-19 has caused most of us to dramatically change our daily routines, including avoiding people as much as possible, working at home instead of at the office, and attending schooling remotely. As restrictions lift, this is beginning to change, much to the relief of many. However, for those who suffer from agoraphobia, all these changes in daily life can be incredibly difficult and stressful to deal with.
Agoraphobia is an anxiety disorder that makes people fear and avoid situations where they feel embarrassed, helpless, or threatened. Their fear of a situation is out of proportion to its true level of risk. Yet fearing public spaces in the midst of a pandemic is a normal response to such a threatening event.
Since the COVID-19 pandemic has forced many people to isolate themselves at home and avoid others, many health professionals believe it may make it harder to treat those who are already suffering from agoraphobia.
In addition, some health professionals believe that as Covid-19 restrictions lessen and society opens up again, some people will have trouble adjusting to normal life after so much social isolation and fear of infection.
“The danger is that some people have been so worried about getting COVID-19 for so long that it could spark symptoms of agoraphobia and other anxiety disorders,” says Dr. Samuel Nordberg.
The Chief of Behavioral Health at Reliant Medical Group, Dr. Nordberg continues, “Although most people are eager to get back to their routines, that won’t be true of everybody – some people will need help readjusting.”
In Canada, over 183,400 people age 15-plus have agoraphobia. In Ontario, that number is 61,500+. In the States, the number is even higher at about 2 percent of adults and teens according to the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders.
According to an American Psychological Association (APA) report, Americans are experiencing a nationwide mental health crisis that could have repercussions for years to come. Their survey shows upticks in mental health issues like stress and anxiety since the pandemic began. However, it is unclear how this relates to agoraphobia.
As crowded spaces are potentially dangerous right now, avoiding them is a natural response, rather than a sign of a disorder. It’s normal to have some fear of public spaces now, because the threat of danger is real.
When do anxious feelings move beyond normal?
If you worry that you may be struggling with agoraphobia or another anxiety disorder, ask yourself these questions:
Is my response in line with the potential threat of danger?
Are my loved ones concerned about my level of worry and avoidance?
Am I following the health guidelines to avoid getting or spreading COVID-19, such as practicing social distancing with people outside of my household, wearing a mask, and hand-washing? Or am I avoiding more people and situations than necessary?
How is agoraphobia typically treated?
Agoraphobia is often treated with cognitive behavioural therapy (CBT), which helps people understand connections between thoughts, feelings, and actions. Typically, a mental health or behavioural health specialist helps you:
understand the triggers of anxiety and agoraphobia,
understand your internal thoughts about the situation that is creating the fear,
build skills to better tolerate anxiety, and
begin to slowly and safely face the situation that creates anxiety and subsequent avoidance. This is generally done by practicing facing the feared situation in a controlled environment.
If you are concerned that you or someone you know may be struggling with agoraphobia, you should contact a medical provider including Telehealth Ontario which provides free medical advice by calling toll free 1-866-797-0000.