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Diagnosis of Panic Disorder With Agoraphobia

An Overview of the Agoraphobia Diagnosis

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Updated February 29, 2012

Written or reviewed by a board-certified physician. See About.com's Medical Review Board.

What Is Panic Disorder with Agoraphobia?

Panic disorder is an anxiety disorder that is characterized by persistent and often unanticipated panic attacks. These attacks are typically experienced as a frightening mix of severe physical sensations and upsetting thoughts. Some of the common symptoms of panic attacks include shortness of breath, racing heart, chest pain, and shaking. As you might suspect from these symptoms, the person often fears that they are experiencing a serious medical emergency. A person having a panic attack may even become afraid that they will die, lose control of themselves, or completely go insane.

Many people with panic disorder will experience panic attacks on and off throughout their lifetime. Despite the symptoms associated with these panic attacks, most will be able to adjust to living with panic disorder. However, up to one-third of those with panic disorder will develop a separate and distressing condition known as agoraphobia.

Agoraphobia is a term used to describe the fear a person has of having a panic attack in a place or situation in which it would be humiliating and/or extremely difficult to escape. A person with agoraphobia may also fear to be in situations where they feel that no one would be able to help them while they were experiencing intense anxiety or a panic attack.

Avoidance Behaviors and Safe Zones

People who struggle with the symptoms of agoraphobia often develop avoidance behaviors. This occurs when the person begins to stay away from places, situations, and events that they believe may cause intense anxiety and possibly trigger a full-blown panic attack. Agoraphobia suffers typically experience their fears in groups of situations that share similar traits. For example, a person may become fearful about various forms of travel, such as buses, trains, and cars. Others may become afraid of large crowds, busy shopping areas, and other more populated places outside the home.

The avoidance behaviors associated with agoraphobia can become so severe that the person’s overall quality of life begins to suffer. It is not uncommon for people with agoraphobia to begin to limit their exposure to only a few areas that they believe are safe. Known as the agoraphobic’s “safe zones,” creating such restrictive boundaries can negatively impact a person’s relationships, employment, and other obligations and aspects of life. Many people with agoraphobia find it extremely challenging, if not unbearable, to go outside of their safe zone. This anxiety can greatly affect their ability to maintain friendships and employment, leading to feelings of loneliness and isolation.

Treatment Options

There are several options in the treatment of panic disorder with agoraphobia. The most common treatment choices consist of prescription medications for panic disorder, psychotherapy, and often a combination of the two. Professionals who treat panic disorder will be able to help the person develop ways to cope with their condition, overcome their fears and negative thinking, and learn strategies for getting through panic attacks. A physician can prescribe medications, such as anti-anxiety drugs, and antidepressants that can assist in reducing feelings of anxiety, decrease the intensity of panic attacks, and elicit a sense of calm.

The onset of agoraphobia symptoms typically occurs within the first year that the person begins to have recurring and unexpected panic attacks. Given how rapidly this condition develops, it is important to seek out treatment options early on. However, even those who wait to get help for panic disorder can safely and effectively learn to manage their condition. Through treatment, a person with agoraphobia can expect to recover from their anxiety, and resume back to a life of independence from their fear and avoidance.

Sources:

American Psychiatric Association. "Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of MentalDisorders, 4th ed., text revision" 2000 Washington, DC: Author.

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