Health

Being Home Because of Coronavirus Can Make Agoraphobia Worse

In our series What It’s Like, we talk with people from a wide range of backgrounds to learn how their lives have changed because of the COVID-19 pandemic. For our latest installment, we spoke with Megan Lane, a freelance writer in Wading River, New York. In addition to depression, generalized anxiety disorder, anorexia nervosa, and ADHD, the 30-year-old has been diagnosed with agoraphobia.

Agoraphobia is often simply defined as a fear of leaving home. In reality, it’s an anxiety disorder that involves debilitating fear and avoidance of environments that might make you feel panicked and trapped, among other awful emotions, according to the Mayo Clinic. This can manifest as a fear of leaving home by yourself and avoiding being in crowded, enclosed, or open spaces, but it varies based on the person.

Lane was diagnosed with agoraphobia five years ago after she spent a year without leaving her home. Back then, just the anticipation of walking down her driveway triggered extreme anxiety. During that year, she spent so much on food delivery that her bank account was regularly overdrawn by the time Social Security disability funds landed in her account. She didn’t go to any medical or dental appointments. Her family would visit once or twice a week for an hour or two, sometimes bringing food, clothing, and other essentials. Lane also lost interest in things that once made her happy, like attending yoga classes and gardening.

Since her agoraphobia diagnosis, however, Lane has made slow but steady progress thanks to cognitive behavioral therapy and exposure therapy, which have helped her face her fears and get to the roots of her anxieties.

Then the pandemic hit. The primary habit Lane had been working so hard to break—cloistering herself away at home—was her only choice to stay as safe as possible. Now, with states lifting lockdown orders, Lane discusses her fears about what this “new normal” will mean for her mental health—and her future. Her answers have been edited and condensed for clarity.

SELF: How much had you progressed in your agoraphobia treatment before the pandemic?

M.L.: Before the new coronavirus swept in like a tornado, I made quite a few breakthroughs in therapy. I was leaving my house to attend yoga classes once or twice every week. Yoga has taught me coping skills to use when I’m anxious. When I’m outside, I’m anxious, and when I’m anxious, I practice the same breathwork I use during yoga. It helps slow down my heart rate. Yoga also makes me feel more confident and comfortable in my skin, and the mindfulness involved helps my agoraphobia somewhat, as it reminds me that everything in life is impermanent, including my emotions.

I stopped canceling wellness visits at my doctor’s office. Do you know how many times I’d told the receptionist that my car ran out of gas? I’ve lost count. But I was getting better and meeting some of my treatment goals.

I also visited my mom and sister frequently. They live close by, which is nice and convenient. I went grocery shopping, clothes shopping at the mall, and, every other week, I’d treat myself to a one-hour massage at a spa near my home. Nothing too exciting, but I was out and about more often.

I embraced the outdoors and the anxiety. The anticipatory anxiety never fully went away—nor did the unpleasant symptoms I feel when I go out, like the pit in my stomach, headaches, hot and cold flashes, and rapid heartbeat. But my panic attacks drastically reduced in number. I was down to only two a month, which was wonderful compared to daily attacks before.

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