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How Agoraphobia and Panic Disorders Affect the Brain

Whenever our brains perceive a threat, an internal warning system alerts us that danger is near. Being in a state of high alert brings on emotional and physical changes in our bodies as we assess the situation and decide if we have to either face a threat and “fight” it or leave it behind and seek safety. 

This is known as the “fight-or-flight” response or the acute stress response, and the body changes that accompany it prepare us to deal with whatever decision we make.

Some people may find their internal alarm system often misfires when it signals that danger is present when it isn’t. These false alarms are known as panic attacks or anxiety attacks. People who regularly experience panic attacks could be diagnosed with panic disorder, which can mean they have other anxiety disorders such as agoraphobia.

To understand the link between the two anxiety disorders, let’s look at each one individually.

What Is Panic Disorder?

“Panic attack is a sudden surge of overwhelming fear that comes without warning and without any obvious reason,” writes the American Psychological Association (APA). “It is far more intense than the feeling of being ‘stressed out’ that most people experience.”

The disorder is estimated to affect 6 million adults, or 2.7 percent of the U.S. population, according to the Anxiety and Depression Association of America (ADAA) reports.  Women are twice as likely to be affected as men, and about 2 to 3 percent of Americans experience panic disorder in a year, the ADAA says. 

The APA writes that panic disorder affects about one out of every 75 people and usually appears during the teens or early adulthood. The causes of panic attacks remain unclear, but major life transitions that potentially bring on a great deal of stress is one possible link. Getting married or divorced, having a baby, or graduating from college are examples of transitions that can facilitate a panic attack.

What Happens During a Panic Attack?

When someone has a panic attack, they can encounter any of the following:

  • Dizziness
  • Heart palpitations
  • Shortness of breath or trouble breathing
  • Sweating
  • Nausea
  • Feeling of choking
  • Chest pain or pressure in the chest
  • Shakiness
  • Numb or tingling sensations in the body
  • Excessive sweating
  • Stomach pain
  • Chills or sudden flushing or chills
  • Upset stomach or diarrhea
  • Feeling a loss of control
  • Fear of dying

This list is not exhaustive, but panic disorder symptoms usually ease after peaking within 10 minutes. However, the fear of them doesn’t go away when the attacks do. Instead, panic disorders leave people afraid that they will continue to experience abrupt anxiety attacks without warning or preparation. This unpredictability can bring a great deal of stress and anxiety to a person. Over time, such stress can be debilitating and overtax the body and mind, which can be harmful. 

Sometimes, panic disorder happens as a result of an external stressor, such as a phobia. Among these phobias is agoraphobia, which we’ll take a closer look at below.

What Is Agoraphobia?

Agoraphobia, as the Mayo Clinic writes, is “a type of anxiety disorder in which you fear and avoid places or situations that might cause you to panic and make you feel trapped, helpless or embarrassed.” 

The condition falls under the category of the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorder 5 (DSM-5) as an anxiety disorder. People who have the condition struggle to feel safe while out in public. They can be afraid of being in open or closed spaces, and they might avoid certain situations, such as waiting in line, using public transportation, or being among others in a crowd.

According to the Mayo Clinic, the fear of not having a way to flee or get help if the anxiety grows is what sparks the anxiety in the first place. It goes on to say, “Most people who have agoraphobia develop it after having one or more panic attacks, causing them to worry about having another attack and avoid the places where it may happen again.”

People who have agoraphobia may also want someone to tag along with them when they are out in public. For some, the fear is overwhelming to the point where they’d rather stay home, which limits their activities outside and could possibly affect their quality of life and mental health. The signs of agoraphobia are similar to those of panic disorder (see above).

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How the Brain Is Affected by Anxiety Disorders

Anxiety disorders, such as panic disorders and agoraphobia, can overwhelm the brain to the point where it can be hard to function daily.

BrainFacts explains the difference between fear and anxiety, writing that fear is a response to a specific stimulus that is threatening while anxiety is a less intense but lingering response to sources that induce anxiety, even ones that are known to the person who has it. 

Anxiety, in other words, is long-term, and according to BrainFacts, it can become a problem when areas in the brain fail to work or work inappropriately. It explains that a stream of inappropriate or irrational behaviors can result from this.  “Long-lasting anxiety like this may be diagnosed as an anxiety disorder,” it writes.

Getting Help

Anxiety disorders can worsen over time if left untreated. This is why people who have panic disorder and/or agoraphobia are advised to seek treatment from a mental health professional or an accredited facility with staff who are trained to treat people with mental health disorders. 

Each person’s situation and needs are unique to them, so the best treatment plan is one that is designed for the individual seeking help. But in general, it is thought that a mix of cognitive and behavioral therapies can be effective. 

Cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) can promote an understanding of the factors that can trigger either disorder and provide strategies that encourage healthy responses to adverse situations. In some cases, medication, such as antidepressants, might be helpful.

If you or someone you know has an anxiety disorder, you are encouraged to meet with a medical professional who is qualified to make an official diagnosis and guide you toward options for the best possible treatment for you.

Sources

How the Fight or Flight Response Works – Very Well Mind. (n.d.). Retrieved from https://www.verywellmind.com/what-is-the-fight-or-flight-response-2795194

ADAA. (n.d.). Panic Disorder. Retrieved from https://adaa.org/understanding-anxiety/panic-disorder

American Psychological Association (APA). (n.d.). Retrieved June 05, 2020, from from https://www.apa.org/topics/anxiety/panic-disorder

ADAA. (n.d.). Facts & Statistics. Retrieved from https://adaa.org/about-adaa/press-room/facts-statistics

Agoraphobia. (2017, November 18). Retrieved from https://www.mayoclinic.org/diseases-conditions/agoraphobia/symptoms-causes/syc-20355987

What Part of the Brain Deals With Anxiety? What Can Brains Affected by Anxiety Tell us? (n.d.). Retrieved from https://www.brainfacts.org/diseases-and-disorders/mental-health/2018/what-part-of-the-brain-deals-with-anxiety-what-can-brains-affected-by-anxiety-tell-us-062918

Agoraphobia Management and Treatment. (n.d.). Retrieved from https://my.clevelandclinic.org/health/diseases/15769-agoraphobia/management-and-treatment

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