CLEVELAND (WJW) – The pandemic is now being linked to an ongoing rise in agoraphobia cases, even as things begin to open up and mandates are removed.

Previously, it was estimated that only 1% of the population suffered from the anxiety disorder, but now the numbers are surging.

“We have seen an explosion in the number of people who experience agoraphobia,” said Dr. Susan Alberts, Clinical Psychologist with the Cleveland Clinic. “People who never experienced agoraphobia are experiencing it at this time.” 

By definition, agoraphobia is the fear of wide open spaces and/or marketplaces, but in reality the anxiety disorder causes excessive fear in a number of ways.

People can become afraid of going to the store, being out in public or leaving home because those situations can trigger severe and debilitating panic attacks.

“People avoid places and situations that make them feel trapped, anxious, embarrassed or judged,” said Dr. Albers.

It’s a physical reaction that some studies suggest is actually linked to a person’s flight or fight response.

The intense and painful symptoms can present themselves suddenly.

Matthew Brower, who was diagnosed with agoraphobia, explains what it feels like.

“You get hot, you get shakes, you get a tingling feeling, you have heart palpitations, feeling like someone’s grabbing your throat or your throat is closing up. It’s like you’re drowning and you can’t seem to grab one thought at a time,” he said.

Many times, the person has or had an underlying anxiety disorder.

Matthew says he was diagnosed in his 30s, but looking back, his condition started out as a teenager when he recalls feeling anxious over a new job.

At its worst, he remained homebound for several years. 

“You get so afraid of going down a road or leaving your house because you get these symptoms of panic attacks,” said Matthew, “And with COVID, we were told to do so many different things and stay home and protect yourself, and it’s in your face over, over, over.”

Fortunately, Matthew was already in treatment as COVID hit.

He even started a support group on Facebook called Panic Anxiety Agoraphobia and Mental Health,” which has now jumped from a dozen members to hundreds from around the world during the pandemic.

“My therapist convinced me to put it on Facebook and I got such a response. ‘Oh my God I know what you’re talking about,’ we’re all like minded in some way,” said Matthew.

Recognizing agoraphobia and any red flags early can be extremely helpful for sufferers in getting treatment, which has been shown to be very effective, including medications and other therapies.

“Cognitive behavioral therapy where you link the triggers of anxiety with the thoughts and feelings as well as systematic desensitization,” said Dr. Albers. 

Breathing exercises, a phone call to a friend or even a tap on the back as the anxiety presents can also help snap a person out of it, says Matthew, “and you’ll be able to control your anxiety.”

Both Dr. Albers and Matthew want people to know there is hope and that agoraphobia does not have to prevent anyone from living a healthy, fulfilling life.

“That doesn’t define who you are. It’s a part of who you are, but it doesn’t define you,” said Matthew

Read more about the red flags that you might be becoming agoraphobic and additional information from the Cleveland Clinic here.