All about agoraphobia

Agoraphobia is an anxiety disorder characterized by really intense fear and panic in places outside of home. This can lead to panic attacks or totally avoiding feared places. There are lots of reasons why this disorder develops and many signs you can look for. It’s also important to know that agoraphobia can be successfully managed in lots of different ways.

This might be helpful if:

  • You want to know what agoraphobia is
  • You've had a panic attack and you're worried about having another one
  • You think a friend might be experiencing agoraphobia
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What is Agoraphobia?

People sometimes assume that agoraphobia is simply a fear of leaving the house. In actual fact, most people with agoraphobia will fear specific places outside their home. These might be busy and crowded places like public transport and shopping centres, or open spaces like parks and beaches. They fear these places because they worry that they might have panic attacks and won’t be able to get help or escape. This fear actually increases the likelihood of having panic attacks in these places, or leads the person to avoid them completely.

What causes Agoraphobia?

Like all psychological disorders, there is no single cause of agoraphobia. Here are some risk factors:

Biology

Agoraphobia has a particularly high heritability. This means that if someone in your family has suffered from agoraphobia or another anxiety problem, this can make you more likely to experience a similar thing due to your genetic similarities. It's also twice as common in females than males.

Psychological factors

Some personality traits and beliefs are linked to anxiety disorders like agoraphobia. These include being really cautious, or prone to worrying and being fearful of unfamiliar stuff. Not everyone who has these traits will be at risk of developing an anxiety disorder, it may simply mean they're more likely to. Believing that panic attacks are dangerous and harmful can also put you at risk of developing agoraphobia.

Environmental factors

Going through a traumatic event may trigger agoraphobia. This might be anything, from being mugged, to a relationship break up, or death of a loved one. These painful experiences can make people feel powerless and fearful, which can heighten anxiety in general, sometimes leading to agoraphobia.

What are the symptoms of Agoraphobia?

 In others, you may notice:

  • Making excuses to avoid any crowded places like shopping centres, parks and parties
  • Avoiding trains, buses and other types of public transport
  • Only agreeing to go to certain places with another person
  • Staying at home for long periods of time

In yourself, you may notice the same things plus:

  • Panic attacks when you’re forced into the places you avoid 
  • Thinking that if you go to a feared place, something bad will happen, like a panic attack, earthquake or car accident
  • Thoughts that you will become trapped in the feared place and no one will help you
  • Distracting yourself to cope with feared places by using strategies like counting in your head, or texting and checking emails on a mobile phone
  • Feeling helpless and different from others

Managing Agoraphobia

Agoraphobia can be treated really successfully. Many people can manage their fears so it eventually doesn't interfere with everyday life.

Here are some things you can do to help your fears:

  • Focus on your breathing– feelings of panic and anxiety get much worse when you breathe too quickly. Try to breathe slowly and deeply, counting to three on each breath in and out.
  • Try to focus on something non-threatening, and remind yourself that your frightening thoughts are a sign of panic and they will soon pass.
  • Long-term treatment is often needed to manage agoraphobia. Psychologists can help. They treat agoraphobia by looking at your negative thoughts and helping you to face your feared places slowly. This helps you learn, in a safe and gradual way, that the feared places are not dangerous.
  • Medication can also help to treat agoraphobia in some cases. Research shows that the most helpful medication for agoraphobia is actually an anti-depressant. Your doctor can prescribe this if it is needed.

What can I do now?

 

Last reviewed: 06 August, 2015
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