What is agoraphobia?

Agoraphobia is a fear of places or situations that you can’t escape from. The word itself means “fear of open spaces” but it can be more complicated than that and cause quite extreme fear. If you have agoraphobia, you might struggle with large crowds and being away from your home. You might avoid social situations altogether. Or you might be afraid of specific situations such as traveling on public transport, parking lots, movie theaters, or visiting a shopping mall.

If you have agoraphobia and encounter a situation you find stressful, you may have a panic attack. Symptoms include a rapid heartbeat, hyperventilation, feeling hot and sweaty and nauseous.

Agoraphobia can be a tricky mental health condition and you may feel misunderstood. But help and support are available. Many people make a full recovery with the right treatment.

What causes agoraphobia?

Agoraphobia can develop in people who suffer from panic disorder - a condition that causes panic attacks. If someone experiences panic attacks in certain situations, they may avoid the places where the panic attacks occurred.

But some people with agoraphobia have never experienced a panic attack. The fear may instead be a specific phobia related to something else like worries or fears about illness, crime or accidents. Some traumatic events such as bereavement may cause agoraphobia. And it can sometimes run in the family.

Symptoms of agoraphobia

Everyone has a slightly different experience of agoraphobia. Signs of agoraphobia can include physical, cognitive and behavioral symptoms.

Physical symptoms

You may experience physical symptoms if you go to a place that causes you anxiety. These symptoms may be similar to a panic attack and include:

  • Rapid heart rate
  • Fast breathing (hyperventilating)
  • Feeling sweaty, sick or faint
  • Trembling
  • Stomach problems such as diarrhea
  • Chest pain

Cognitive symptoms

Agoraphobia can cause you to have unpleasant thoughts or feelings and lead to severe anxiety. You may fear you’ll look stupid or embarrass yourself in front of others, that you won’t be able to escape from a situation or that you’ll experience a panic attack that could make you unable to breathe (or feel like a heart attack).

Behavioral symptoms

Agoraphobia can lead to behavior changes including avoiding situations that might cause panic attacks. For some people, this means avoiding crowded places, such as public transportation or grocery stores. You may not be able to leave the house or you might need to be with someone you trust if you do go out. Some people are able to go out but avoid being very far away from home.

Agoraphobia diagnosis

If you have any of the symptoms of agoraphobia, you should speak to a qualified healthcare professional. There isn’t a specific test for agoraphobia but a healthcare provider can diagnose the condition based on your symptoms.

It can be hard to talk about agoraphobia but a doctor can help you find treatment and ways to cope. Don’t be embarrassed; support is available.

Your doctor might ask you about your symptoms and when they occur. They might ask if you have problems leaving the house, which situations you avoid, and whether you have coping strategies to help you deal with the problem.

Agoraphobia treatment

There are a number of ways to help people deal with agoraphobia. You may be offered psychotherapy or certain medications such as a type of antidepressant called selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors (SSRIs) or benzodiazepines. The best medicine for agoraphobia will depend on your medical history.

A type of treatment called cognitive-behavioral therapy (CBT) may be particularly helpful for agoraphobia. A therapist will work with you to break the cycle of negative thoughts. They can also introduce you to agoraphobia relaxation techniques to help you feel calmer about situations that make you feel anxious. Or they may recommend exposure therapy, where a therapist creates a safe environment to 'expose' you to the situations you usually avoid to help you face your fears. There are also plenty of self-help techniques a psychotherapist can teach you. And they may recommend support groups where you can talk to others with agoraphobia, share coping strategies and feel less alone.

FAQs

Is agoraphobia an anxiety disorder?

Yes, agoraphobia is a type of anxiety disorder. Agoraphobia causes you to feel afraid of and avoid places or situations that might cause you to panic. The word means a fear of open spaces but people with agoraphobia are afraid of any situation that makes them feel trapped. Luckily, agoraphobia can be treated in a similar way to other anxiety disorders. Talking therapies or medication can help.

Do I have agoraphobia or social anxiety?

The symptoms of agoraphobia and social anxiety can be very similar but there are subtle differences. Someone with agoraphobia is usually afraid of having a panic attack or losing control in quite specific situations such as a crowded place, on public transport, or in a confined space. Someone with social anxiety disorder or social phobia is usually more worried about what others think of them and being judged or embarrassed in social situations.

Can you cure agoraphobia?

If someone with agoraphobia does not receive treatment, the condition can last for life. But don’t worry, the majority of people with agoraphobia successfully manage their symptoms. And about half of all patients who get treatment make a full recovery.

There are several treatments that can help including talking therapy (such as cognitive behavioral therapy) or medications such as antidepressants.

How long does agoraphobia last?

Many people with agoraphobia make a full recovery after seeking help. But for some people who don’t get treatment, agoraphobia can last years. The panic attacks caused by the condition usually last between 10 and 30 minutes, although some people experience shorter or longer incidents. And some people experience agoraphobia without panic attacks. Agoraphobia, in whatever form it takes, can have a huge impact on your quality of life and cause you to avoid situations you’d otherwise enjoy. Get help for agoraphobia today - there are lots of treatments that can really help.

Can you have agoraphobia without panic attacks?

Yes. Agoraphobia doesn’t always cause panic attacks. In fact, some people with agoraphobia avoid exposing themselves to their fears and so don’t experience panic attacks. In some cases, agoraphobia develops without being triggered by panic attacks. For some people, agoraphobia is caused by a traumatic event that leads them to become afraid to leave the house.

How do you get agoraphobia?

For most people, agoraphobia is a complication of panic disorder. Panic disorder is an anxiety condition that involves panic attacks and moments of intense fear. Agoraphobia usually results when people associate having panic attacks with the places or situations they experienced them in. This leads to people avoiding certain situations because they are afraid they’ll experience a panic attack there again.

How long should a panic attack last?

The symptoms of a panic attack can feel very unpleasant and scary. But rest assured, panic attacks are always temporary and not life-threatening. For most people, a panic attack lasts between 10 and 30 minutes. Though some people experience them for up to an hour. You don’t have to suffer in silence with panic attacks. There are plenty of treatments such as talking therapy and medications that can prevent you from experiencing them in future. Speak to a healthcare professional today to find out what could help you.

What does agoraphobia feel like?

Agoraphobia can be a deeply distressing and frustrating condition. It usually means feeling unsafe in public places, especially where there are crowds. The fear can be so overwhelming that you might not be able to leave your house. Other people find they need a trusted companion, such as a relative or friend, to accompany them to the public place. Agoraphobia can be lonely if you don’t have people who understand what you’re going through. But you don’t have to put up with these uncomfortable feelings. There are treatments and techniques that can stop agoraphobia from affecting your everyday life.

Is agoraphobia genetic?

Research has shown that people can inherit a vulnerability to agoraphobia from their parents. But while agoraphobia may partially be genetic, most people don’t experience it until early adulthood or adolescence. However, even if there’s no family history of agoraphobia, you might still develop the condition. Sometimes traumatic experiences trigger agoraphobia.

The information provided is for educational purposes only and is not intended to be a substitute for professional medical advice, diagnosis, or treatment. Seek the advice of a doctor with any questions you may have regarding a medical condition. Never delay seeking or disregard professional medical advice because of something you have read here.