The SARS-CoV-2 virus pandemic plunged the world into a deep social, economic and health crisis for months, and it is clear that this is a very complex phenomenon to analyze. This is why, sometimes, we fall into simplism even when we limit ourselves to evaluating the impact it has had on people’s health.
And in many cases, we only consider the medical issues associated with COVID-19, and ignore the fact that the pandemic doesn’t need us to come into direct contact with the virus to harm us. To do this, we use an element with a great capacity to affect our mental health: fear.
Fear can take many forms, and most of them are not a mental disorder; but in exceptional situations, everything around us conspires to transform what began as a fear that we initially assumed was normal into a veritable vicious cycle of anticipatory anxiety, imaginary danger-avoidance behaviors, and other dynamics. harmful. What’s this it has occurred on more than one occasion with agoraphobia facilitated by the pandemic context.
The characteristics of agoraphobia
Agoraphobia is primarily a psychological disorder that is part of anxiety disorders, a category that includes mental disorders based on a dysfunctional management of our thoughts and emotions when something or someone makes us anxious (and that, for therefore, he makes us feel this very often).
Specifically, people who develop agoraphobia are very prone to severe anxiety attacks. situations in which they perceive that it would be difficult to escape a danger if it appeared and/or in which they could not get help in case something bad happens to them (like suffering from their own anxiety “spike”). Consequently, a person suffering from agoraphobia adopts a series of behaviors based on avoiding these “threatening” places which, contrary to popular belief, can be open (a wide and busy street) or closed (an elevator): what matters is the degree to which the person perceives that in this place they are protected or can have the support of someone involved in their well-being.
Some characteristic symptoms of agoraphobia (which do not have to occur all at the same time in person) are:
- Afraid to leave the house.
- Avoid very open spaces or in which we are very exposed, such as bridges, squares, car parks…
- Avoid very closed places, such as elevators, galleries, alleys, steps under a railway line…
- Experiencing a sudden increase in anxiety levels when we feel unprotected (although we cannot locate a real concrete threat).
- Tendency to suffer a great deal of anticipatory anxiety at the very thought of experiencing a “spike” of anxiety.
- The above symptoms last for months.
Thus, agoraphobia is a disorder which, without the person realizing it, it plunges her into a vicious circle of fear and avoidance: Gradually, the idea arises that there is no control over how these strong states of anxiety are activated, which makes them more easily manifest and generally more and more frequent. And in turn, the desire to avoid trouble by exposing oneself to places where there is no protection or help available causes agoraphobia to become prominent in the person’s life, which causes the person to self-suggest (unintentionally) and become more vulnerable to anxiety.
And what does this have to do with the coronavirus pandemic? Let’s see below.
What do we know about the anxiety problems triggered by the coronavirus?
A report published at the end of 2021 by the European Commission and the OECD shows that some reveal data on the relationship between the pandemic and anxiety-related psychological disorders:
- Already in the first months of the global pandemic, the number of cases of anxiety and/or depression became approximately twice as high as in previous years.
- The tendency to suffer from anxiety with or without depressive symptoms rose and fell depending on the number of infections and the severity of health measures taken by governments.
- The psychological impact of the pandemic has been markedly uneven, given the economic and biological differences.
On the other hand, research on the psychological consequences of COVID-19 has shown in many cases that People with significant symptoms are statistically more likely to suffer from anxiety disorders. (About 15% of people develop at least one within weeks of the onset of the disease), including agoraphobia.
Thus, the coronavirus pandemic has not affected the entire population in the same way, neither in terms of the risk of developing a serious case of COVID-19, nor in terms of the impact that the crisis has had on the people’s mental health. Thus, those who during these months were in a precarious economic situation or were unemployed reported suffering more anxiety problems, and the feeling of anxiety was also greater in those who were not in good health. or who were at risk because of their age. . . Interestingly, young people have also been targeted for increased anxiety and depression, likely due to the disruption of their routines and possibly also due to their greater vulnerability due to job insecurity.
It should also be noted that during the pandemic, health care capacity and health system coverage in most countries has been significantly reduced: waiting lists have grown and the focus has been on online medical and psychotherapeutic care to avoid travel and face-to-face meetings, which has left those without good access vulnerable the Internet or the knowledge necessary to use it. .
This kind of change that happened on a global scale, that happened throughout society at the same time, This has caused many people to feel particularly at risk, a breeding ground from which cases of agoraphobia can arise relatively easily. It has been estimated that a large mass of people have moved in unison to protect themselves from the virus, following strict and drastic measures, but at the same time unable to offer full protection to those who have not the ease of following in the footsteps of others start from a more delicate state of health or economy.
A disorder that exploits our vulnerabilities
As we have seen, in the pandemic There have been several conditions that can affect us psychologically.
On the one hand, the pandemic has been part of the main news of the day for months, as its effects are felt in all areas of society. On the other hand, governments have applied very significant health restrictions that have affected people’s daily lives in a very basic way, requiring the collaboration of citizens to act as a whole and curb the contagion curve. And on the other hand, for a significant period, the health system was overwhelmed by the situation.
Because of this, all the ingredients have been given for a psychological disorder such as agoraphobia to influence a significant part of the population, both quantitatively (being developed by more people) and qualitatively (finding in everyday situations more elements in which to “lean” and stay active, affecting mental health). This is due to the fact:
- For many months, it has been difficult to stay away from ideas or images that exploit the fears of the population (sometimes out of sensationalism, sometimes to maintain active citizen collaboration in the prevention of contagion).
- Particularly vulnerable minorities emerged who may have felt displaced or alienated because the public account of the steps to be taken and applied to fight the virus did not represent them, fueling the idea that they were alone in danger.
- The fact of having gone through the disease can leave psychological sequelae at least in the short and medium term, enough for other fears to arise from these fears. psychopathologies such as agoraphobia.
- For months, the thought of going to busy streets has been instilled with fear due to a hypothetical increased risk of infection (although it was later shown that the vast majority of infections are produce indoors).
- During the months of the toughest restrictions, home confinement could make many people the only safe place to become their own home, preventing them from losing the fear of going outside.
All these images and ideas related to fear have been transmitted and reinforced over and over again. through the media and daily conversations, it is therefore not surprising that mental health issues have exploded during this period. And that is why the possibility of going to psychotherapy to overcome disorders like agoraphobia is more important than ever.
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I am Paloma Rey and I have a degree in General Health Psychology; I cater to people of all ages and provide the option to conduct sessions in person or online via video call.