This article will provide a comprehensive understanding of agoraphobia and social anxiety, highlighting their distinctions and overlaps and helping you navigate the anxiety spectrum by recognizing the differences between the two disorders.
Anxiety disorders are the second most common form of mental health disorder, behind depression. Many individuals struggling with depression are likely to also have an anxiety disorder. They come in many forms, though, like:
- Generalized anxiety
- Social anxiety
Anxiety disorders can significantly impact individuals, interfering with daily function, social engagements, and mental health.
Agoraphobia and social anxiety are both forms of anxiety disorders, so there is some overlap, but they are distinct disorders that need slightly different treatments.
Agoraphobia and Social Anxiety
Agoraphobia is defined as being fearful of any situations from which you cannot escape or might be trapped, can’t find help, or find embarrassing. This fear is far out of proportion to the situation itself and can cause symptoms for up to 6 months.
Agoraphobia can significantly inhibit daily function and cause problems with individuals who might avoid or require companions if they are forced into enclosed places, open public spaces, standing in lines, standing in crowds, or using public transportation. With agoraphobia, the fear has to be so intense that it interferes with normal activities.
- Agoraphobia affects between 1% and 1.7% of adults worldwide.
- Social anxiety affects 7% of adults across the United States.
Social anxiety is when an individual experiences significant discomfort and anxiety in social situations where they believe that they will be humiliated, judged, rejected, or otherwise embarrassed. As such, these individuals are more likely to avoid any social situation where that might happen or where they believe that might happen. In these cases, the fear and anxiety can last at least six months and disrupt daily function.
Key Differences Between Agoraphobia and Social Anxiety
The key difference between agoraphobia and social anxiety lies in the triggers, though they may seem similar at first glance.
Fearful situations and triggers
With agoraphobia, people are afraid of public spaces where they might find themselves trapped, embarrassed, or otherwise unable to escape or get help.
Fear of public spaces and being unable to escape or find help
Those with social anxiety are not as afraid of public situations or being trapped. Instead, they are more apprehensive of being scrutinized or judged by others in social interactions, and in some cases, of social interactions at all.
Focus on anxiety and avoidance behaviors
The fears and triggers manifest differently for social anxiety vs agoraphobia.
For agoraphobia, the fear of being trapped in a public place means they avoid social or public situations perceived as unsafe or triggering like:
- Going to the grocery store
- Going to the bank
- Driving to a coffee shop
- Avoiding standing in lines
- Avoiding public transportation
By comparison, those with social anxiety who are more afraid of social situations, not just public ones, will avoid social situations or performance-related activities. People might avoid:
- Public speaking
- Meeting new people
- Eating or drinking in public
Impact on daily functioning and lifestyle
Agoraphobia symptoms can significantly impact daily function and lifestyle. Individuals struggling with agoraphobia are limited in leaving their houses or participating in activities.
For some people, this might mean not being able to run simple errands like going to the grocery store or the bank. It can extend to being unable or unwilling to participate in social activities that require standing in line, like sports events or concerts. It can even prevent people from simply going outside alone.
If triggered by an upcoming event, the symptoms of intense fear and anxiety can last for several months at a time, further decreasing the likelihood that an individual will be able to function normally and go in public where necessary.
Social anxiety significantly inhibits the ability to form new relationships because one of the main symptoms is a fear of meeting new people. This can significantly impact lifestyle and leave individuals experiencing loneliness with limited relationships.
Social anxiety can also impact daily functioning by preventing individuals from participating in social events or causing significant anxiety at the suggestion of participating in a social event. This can make it difficult to maintain relationships or to feel at ease in any public situation.
Individuals who participate in a social event and experience severe anxiety from their social anxiety can struggle with those symptoms for months after. Similarly, an individual who is asked to do a public speaking event for work with severe social anxiety might struggle with symptoms for months ahead of time, just at the suggestion.
Treatment approaches and interventions
Another difference between agoraphobia and social anxiety is how it is treated.
With agoraphobia, treatment involves things like gradual exposure therapy and cognitive behavioral therapy.
For example, a therapist might encourage you to take gradual, achievable goals each session, like sitting in a crowded parking lot for a set amount of time and then, the next week, sitting in the parking lot and driving from the parking lot to another location with a friend in the car with you.
Cognitive-behavioral techniques can be used alongside exposure therapy to change how you think. For example, you might think, “I am nervous I will have a breakdown in public,” and your therapist will help you change that to, “I am nervous I might have a breakdown, but I have a plan to call my spouse if I do.”
Changing the way you think with agoraphobia vs social anxiety can help you reframe your thoughts, emotions, and actions away from avoiding ever going to the store or your favorite ice cream parlor and, instead, recognizing that you have plans in place and you are more secure than you might think.
Agoraphobia and social anxiety share some overlapping treatments in the form of cognitive behavioral therapy. With social anxiety, cognitive behavioral therapy can help tackle similar changes in automatic thoughts but is often used in conjunction with social skills training.
In some cases, anti-anxiety medication might be prescribed for acute symptom management. In this case, medication is reviewed for its effectiveness at several intervals with your psychiatrist or doctor to ensure it is working. Studies have proven that medication is significantly more effective when combined with therapy and social skills training.
While you might find a difference between agoraphobia vs. social anxiety, they are both forms of anxiety disorders. They might present with different symptoms, but they can both be treated well with early recognition, accurate diagnosis, and appropriate treatment. If you are struggling with signs of social anxiety vs agoraphobia, seek support and regain control over your life today.