What Is Agoraphobia?

Woman with agoraphobia looking through window

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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 many places and situations in which they fear panic may occur. For example, some commonly avoided circumstances include 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 isolating. Agoraphobia can greatly affect a person’s 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 to do.

Fear and avoidance can become so severe that the person with the phobia becomes secluded to their own home.

Symptoms

Panic attacks often precede the onset of agoraphobia. Symptoms of a panic attack 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.

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

Although many sufferers of 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 to have 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 0.8% of adults in the U.S. population in any given year. This condition typically develops in adulthood. However, agoraphobia 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

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

Your doctor will assess your symptoms and check for any underlying medical conditions that might be causing your 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 when you are placed in such situations
  • Recognize that the fear 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

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 treatment process may include some systematic desensitization, in which the person gradually confronts avoided situations with the support and guidance of their therapist. 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), selective serotonin-norepinephrine inhibitors (SNRIs), and tricyclic antidepressants
  • Anti-anxiety medications such as Klonopin (clonozepam) and Xanax (alpraxolam)

Coping

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:

  • Practicing stress management techniques such as deep breathing, visualization, and progressive muscle relaxation to help reduce anxiety
  • Eating a healthy and nutritious diet
  • Getting regular physical exercise
  • Avoiding drugs and alcohol
  • Limiting caffeine intake

Through the support of family and friends and professional help, a person who is struggling with agoraphobia can begin to manage their condition. Through 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.

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Article Sources
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  1. National Institute of Mental Health. Agoraphobia. Updated November 2017.

  2. Cleveland Clinic. Agoraphobia. Updated May 8, 2015.

  3. Hoffart A, Hedley LM, Svanøe K, Langkaas TF, Sexton H. Agoraphobia with and without panic disorder: A 20-year follow-up of integrated exposure and psychodynamic therapy. J Nerv Ment Dis. 2016;204(2):100-7. doi:10.1097/nmd.0000000000000419

  4. American Psychiatric Association. Diagnostic and statistical manual of mental disorders (5th ed.). Washington, DC. 2013.

  5. Hofmann SG, Asnaani A, Vonk IJ, Sawyer AT, Fang A. The efficacy of cognitive behavioral therapy: A review of meta-analyses. Cognit Ther Res. 2012;36(5):427-440. doi:10.1007%2Fs10608-012-9476-1

  6. Cleveland Clinic. Agoraphobia: Management and Treatment. Updated May 8, 2015.

Additional Reading
  • American Psychiatric Association. Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders. 5th ed. Washington D.C.: 2013.