People dealing with agoraphobia face some of the greatest mental health challenges: fear of leaving an environment deemed to be safe. As many agoraphobia sufferers see their home as the only safe place, this means they face incredible difficulty carrying out simple, everyday tasks, from going to work to taking the kids to school to going to the store for groceries.
The good news is that extensive studying of agoraphobia has led to the emergence of several rather effective methods for treating this condition, which is a form of anxiety. The right form of treatment for each individual will depend on the extent of their agoraphobia and the amount of time the condition has affected the patient.
1. Cognitive behavioral therapy
The first step in addressing agoraphobia is to have the patient discuss their condition with a trained specialist, such as a social worker, psychologist, or psychiatrist. They can help the patient determine the extent of their agoraphobia and go about devising treatment plans based on the way the condition affects the patient’s lifestyle.
Cognitive behavioral therapy is used to treat a wide range of mental health issues and the process is similar when it comes to treating agoraphobia. The goal is to develop effective skills and schedules that allow the patient to better manage their condition and enjoy a lifestyle that the patient deems acceptable. That said, cognitive behavioral therapy can be a long and arduous process — in fact, it may require years or even decades of working with a trained specialist.
2. Group therapy
Agoraphobia is, in simple terms, a fear of environments outside the home. It leaves patients fearing visits to places most of us consider safe, from the local shopping mall to elementary schools to even office spaces. As a result, it can have a hugely problematic impact on the lives of those suffering from agoraphobia.
Group therapy can help agoraphobia patients by showing them that they’re not alone — that other people are struggling with the same condition. In a group setting patients can discuss their various strategies for coping with their condition and learn useful tactics that can help them tolerate or even begin to overcome their fears.
3. Exposure therapy
Some fears and phobias can have only a limited impact on the lives of patients. Take arachnophobia, for example — a fear of spiders, it will not drastically affect a patient’s general lifestyle unless they regularly visit places with spiders. In most environments, that’s pretty rare.
But agoraphobia is different because it limits a person from just leaving their home. For that reason, many trained specialists will insist on trying exposure therapy, which encourages the patient to gradually increase their exposure to their fear — in this case, the world outside their home. Over time, exposure therapy can make leaving the home far more tolerable and help a patient adjust to a relatively normal lifestyle.
4. Home therapy
Because agoraphobia primarily affects one’s ability to leave the home — in other words, they become deeply afraid of visiting public or open spaces like shopping malls, schools and workplaces — a trained therapist may need to conduct therapy sessions in the home rather than in a medical office.
This kind of treatment is usually available to agoraphobia patients whose condition is extensive enough that they suffer paralyzing fear over any ventures beyond the front door. Another possibility is carrying out therapy sessions over the phone, through an online voice messaging system, or through email. That said, therapy tends to have the most success when conducted in person.
5. In-hospital treatment
In most cases agoraphobia can be treated like any other mental health condition — through cognitive behavioral therapy, occasional visits to a trained specialist, and, if necessary, medications. But in some cases the patient’s agoraphobia is so serious that they require more extensive, round-the-clock observation in a medical facility like a hospital.
In-hospital treatment tends to be far more intensive than other forms of treatment for agoraphobia. For this reason it can be deeply unsettling for a patient who struggles with leaving the home. In these cases it’s advised that the patient be joined as much as possible by a trusted family member or friend.
On the surface it may not seem advisable to prescribe anti-depressants to patients with agoraphobia, a type of anxiety that typically involves fear of leaving the home for busy open and public spaces like parks, schools and shopping malls. But certain antidepressants, such as Prozac and Zoloft, can be used for anxiety and panic disorders when administered at certain levels. In other words, depending on the amount of the drug taken, it can help treat different types of mental health issues.
For these reasons, it may be worth talking to your family physician or psychiatrist about using anti-depressants to help with agoraphobia.
7. Anti-anxiety medications
One of the most popular ways to treat agoraphobia — or a general fear of environments outside the safety of the home — is to turn to anti-anxiety medications like benzodiazepines. Some of these medications are designed to help sedate the mind, which in some cases can help relieve severe anxiety.
That said, these types of medications can take weeks or even months to take effect and could be problematic if taken over a long period of time. Most physicians will try to avoid having their patients use anti-anxiety medications for more than a few months or a couple years, preferring to have a patient try cognitive behavioral therapy treatments that can have better long-term outcomes. It’s also worth noting that both anti-depressants and anti-anxiety medications can take weeks or months to safely cease taking — meaning that going “cold turkey” could present serious side effects.