I remember when my social anxiety was at its peak going outside could seem daunting. The solitude and security of home was far more preferable to running the gauntlet of (perceived) threats and negative stares from going outdoors. But staying insider forever isn’t an option for most people, unless you’re a reclusive millionaire that can hide in their luxury apartment without having to go to work. For this reason, social anxiety can often be confused with agoraphobia, when the two conditions are actually different branches of the anxiety disorders tree.
What is agoraphobia?
As you probably already know, social phobia is a fear of social situations and the uncomfortable thoughts and feelings they can trigger. The most up-to-date research believes this is due to our bodies perceiving threats inaccurately and then triggering our ‘fight or flight’ mode. The result is that our heart rate increases, we become more aware of our surroundings and we feel anxious in anticipation of an imminent threat. It’s also believed that social anxiety disorder commonly develops during childhood, as a result of negative social experiences that cause the formation of an inaccurate belief system on the threat posed by other people.
Agoraphobia, on the other hand, isn’t a fear of people but rather a fear of having a panic attack in an open space without the ability to escape. It can be triggered whenever people with agoraphobia feel as though they are in a situation they can’t control, and no longer feel the security of their home surroundings. Like social anxiety, when sufferers are outside of their comfort zone then their ‘fight of flight’ mode is triggered, leading to a sense of panic, anxiety and fear of perceived threats (which don’t actually exist).
Agoraphobia is believed to develop as a result of genetics, life experiences and individual temperament, which cause people to reach a heightened sense of anxiety and a fear of having a panic attack in public spaces. Unlike social anxiety, people with agoraphobia can function perfectly normally around other people in their own home, where they feel safe. They can chat, laugh and feel relaxed around strangers. It’s only when they step out of the door that their threat impulses kick in and they start to panic and feel afraid.
While the conditions differ, treatment is the same
Social anxiety and agoraphobia both fall underneath the umbrella term of anxiety disorders. While the triggers are different the symptoms and treatment are the same. Both social phobia and agoraphobia can be treated through changing the subconscious belief system that drives them. Both conditions can have a wide range of severities, and as such the treatment required needs to be tailored for the individual.
As always, the first step is to visit your doctor (or in severe cases they should be able to come to your home) for a diagnosis and professional advice on the best course of action. This could include cognitive behavioural therapy, to address the negative and inaccurate thoughts driving the anxiety disorder, medication to dampen the symptoms and other types of therapy, such as gradual exposure or group therapy.
The key takeaway from this post is that both agoraphobia and social anxiety are treatable conditions. They are both well researched conditions with a diagnosis and a cure. As such, you don’t have to live with them forever. The first step is reaching out and asking for help and then finding the path that will enable you to challenge your inaccurate, uncomfortable thoughts and rewire your brain to attend social events and to go out in public without fear.