What Is Agoraphobia?

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What Is Agoraphobia?

Agoraphobia is an anxiety disorder that involves an extreme and irrational fear of being unable to escape a difficult or embarrassing situation in the event of developing panic-like or other incapacitating symptoms.

The disorder is marked by anxiety that causes people to avoid situations where they might feel panicked, trapped, helpless, or embarrassed. It can occur on its own or alongside another mental health condition, such as panic disorder.

This fear often leads to persistent avoidance behaviors, in which the person begins to stay away from the places and situations in which they fear panic may occur. For example, a person with agoraphobia may avoid driving a car, leaving the comfort of home, shopping in a mall, traveling by airplane, or simply being in a crowded area.

Due to these avoidance behaviors, the life of a person with agoraphobia can become very restrictive and isolated—greatly affecting their personal and professional life. For example, heightened fears and avoidance behaviors can make it difficult for a person with agoraphobia to travel for work or to visit with family and friends. Even small tasks, such as going to the store, can become extremely difficult.

Fear and avoidance can become so severe with agoraphobia that the person with the phobia becomes confined to their home. Fortunately, agoraphobic symptoms can be treated.

Agoraphobia or Agorophobia?

It's not uncommon for agoraphobia to be misspelled as agorophobia. Though, agoraphobia (with an "a" prior to "phobia") is the proper spelling.

Symptoms of Agoraphobia

Symptoms of agoraphobia may include:

  • Being afraid of leaving home
  • Being afraid of open spaces, bridges, or shopping centers
  • Fear of enclosed spaces or buildings
  • Fear of leaving home or being in social situations alone
  • Fear of losing control in a public place
  • Fear of places where escape might be difficult
  • Fear of public transportation

These situations almost always trigger an anxiety response that is out of proportion to the actual danger presented by the situation.

Panic attacks often precede the onset of agoraphobia. When forced to endure a feared situation, a person may experience a panic attack that causes symptoms including:

  • Chest pain
  • Chills
  • Diarrhea
  • Dizziness
  • Feelings of choking
  • Feelings of unreality
  • Nausea
  • Numbness
  • Rapid heartbeat
  • Shortness of breath
  • Sweating
  • Trembling

Types of Agoraphobia

Although many people with agoraphobia will also have panic disorder, it is possible to be diagnosed with agoraphobia without having a history of panic disorder. When this occurs, the person still has a fear of being stuck in a situation where escape would be difficult or humiliating. However, they generally do not fear having full-blown panic attacks.

Rather, they may be afraid of having some other type of distressing anxiety symptom or other intense physical issues, such as vomiting or having a severe migraine. For instance, the person may be afraid that they will lose control of their bladder in public or faint without any help being available.

Approximately one-third to half of those diagnosed with panic disorder will also develop agoraphobia. The National Institute of Mental Health (NIMH) reports that agoraphobia occurs to approximately 0.9% of adults in the U.S. population in any given year. This condition typically develops in adulthood, though it can emerge earlier in adolescence.

Agoraphobia vs. Other Phobias

The avoidance behaviors present in agoraphobia differ from the diagnostic criteria of a specific phobia. For instance:

  • A person with agoraphobia may avoid traveling by airplane due to a fear of having a panic attack on a plane and not necessarily due to aerophobia, or the fear of flying.
  • A person with agoraphobia may avoid crowds, fearing the embarrassment of having a panic attack in front of a lot of people. Such a fear is not the same as social anxiety disorder, which is a separate mental health condition that involves anxiety about being negatively evaluated by others.

Causes of Agoraphobia

The exact causes of agoraphobia are not known, but there are a number of risk factors that may increase your risk of developing this condition. These include:

  • Having another anxiety disorder, such as generalized anxiety disorder or social anxiety disorder
  • Another phobia
  • A family history of agoraphobia
  • A history of abuse or trauma
  • Brain chemistry

Learned associations can also play a role in the development of agoraphobia. Experiencing a panic attack in a certain situation or setting can lead to a fear that such a reaction will occur again in the future.

Diagnosis of Agoraphobia

To receive a diagnosis of agoraphobia, a healthcare provider will assess your symptoms and check for any underlying medical conditions that might be causing those symptoms. You may be asked about your medical history and you will be asked about the nature, duration, and severity of your anxiety symptoms.

In order to be diagnosed with agoraphobia, you must:

  • Have marked fear in at least two different situations, such as open spaces, crowded areas, or public transportation
  • Have the agoraphobic situation almost always provoke an anxiety response
  • Have fear that is out of proportion to the threat
  • Exhibit avoidance behaviors or distress that disrupts your normal routines, work, school, and relationships
  • Experience these symptoms for at least six months

The symptoms must also not be better explained by another medical or mental condition.

Treatment for Agoraphobia

If a person does develop agoraphobia with panic disorder, symptoms typically begin to occur within the first year that the person starts having recurring and persistent panic attacks. Agoraphobia can get worse if left untreated.

For the best outcomes in managing agoraphobia and panic symptoms, it is important to seek treatment as soon as symptoms arise. Treatment options typically include a combination of both medication and psychotherapy.

Psychotherapy

The therapeutic approach may include some systematic desensitization, in which the person gradually confronts avoided situations with the support and guidance of their therapist. Some research has shown that integrating exposure therapy with psychodynamic treatment has been beneficial in panic disorder with agoraphobia. Many times, the person will fare better in facing their fears if accompanied by a trusted friend.

Medications

Medications may also be prescribed to help manage certain symptoms of agoraphobia. These medications include:

  • Antidepressants, including selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors (SSRIs) such as Prozac (fluoxetine) and Zoloft (sertraline); selective serotonin-norepinephrine inhibitors (SNRIs) such as Effexor (venlafaxine); and tricyclic antidepressants (TCAs) such as Tofranil (imipramine) and Anafranil (clomipramine)
  • Anti-anxiety medications, such as Klonopin (clonazepam) and Xanax (alprazolam)

Coping With Agoraphobia

In addition to seeking help from a mental health professional, there are also lifestyle changes that can help you to better manage the symptoms of agoraphobia. These include:

Through the support of family and friends and professional help, a person with agoraphobia can manage their condition. With medication and psychotherapy, a person with agoraphobia can expect to eventually experience fewer panic attacks, fewer avoidance behaviors, and a return to a more independent and active life.

If you or a loved one are struggling with agoraphobia, contact the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA) National Helpline at 1-800-662-4357 for information on support and treatment facilities in your area.

For more mental health resources, see our National Helpline Database.

Frequently Asked Questions

  • How common is agoraphobia?

    The National Institutes of Health (NIH) found that less than 1% of the population reports having agoraphobia during the past 12 months. Additionally, males and females appear to have agoraphobia at near-equal rates at 0.8% and 0.9% respectively. Though, other health institutions suggest that the prevalence may be a bit higher, or somewhere between 1% and 2%.

  • What causes agoraphobia?

    The cause of agoraphobia is unclear, though this condition often exists along with panic disorder. In fact, roughly one in three people with a panic disorder also develop agoraphobia. A family history of agoraphobia or a history of trauma may also contribute to the development of agoraphobia.

  • What are the best treatment options for agoraphobia?

    Generally, a combination of psychotherapy and medication provides the best treatment outcome for people with agoraphobia. That said, the most effective treatment depends on the severity of the condition. Lifestyle changes can help reduce agoraphobic symptoms as well.

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8 Sources
Verywell Mind uses only high-quality sources, including peer-reviewed studies, to support the facts within our articles. Read our editorial process to learn more about how we fact-check and keep our content accurate, reliable, and trustworthy.
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Additional Reading
  • American Psychiatric Association. Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders. 5th ed. Washington D.C.: 2013.