What is agoraphobia?

Agora-what? Agoraphobia is when you fear having a panic attack in a place or situation that is difficult to escape from or where help may not be available. Someone with agoraphobia might restrict themselves to being only in places they consider safe and avoid certain situations, such as public transport, crowds or queues. If you think this might be you, there is help available.

This can help if:

  • you worry about having panic attacks

  • you want to know what agoraphobia is

  • you’re worried about someone who may be experiencing agoraphobia.

Boy at window looking down

What is agoraphobia?

Most people develop agoraphobia as part of an anxiety or panic disorder, where the fear of having overwhelming anxiety when away from home makes it difficult for them to go out. If you have agoraphobia, you may be anxious about having a panic attack, or you may fear other places or situations where you’ve had a panic attack before.

This fear may make you avoid these situations or do things to help manage your anxiety, such as only catching the bus with a parent or friend. While these behaviours can decrease your anxiety temporarily, in the long term they can make it worse.

Some signs and symptoms of agoraphobia include::

  • You avoid situations because you’re concerned you’ll have a panic attack.

  • You worry that if you have a panic attack, you won’t be able to get away easily or that no one will be able to help you.

  • You agree to go to certain places only if someone goes with you.

  • You’re reluctant to leave, or get anxious when leaving, situations and environments that are familiar or feel safe.

  • You experience anxiety or panic when you can’t avoid certain situations.

What causes agoraphobia?

There’s no single cause of agoraphobia. If you have a family history of agoraphobia or other anxiety disorders, or have experienced a panic attack or traumatic event in the past, your likelihood of developing agoraphobia increases.

Agoraphobia develops over time, as you start avoiding more and more places that make you feel anxious.

How can agoraphobia affect your life?

If left untreated, agoraphobia can really reduce your quality of life. For example:

  • You may feel unable to continue doing some activities, such as going to work or school, participating in hobbies, or leaving home to exercise or socialise.

  • Isolation, loneliness, boredom and financial hardship (from not being able to work) can cause distress and increase the risk of depression.

  • If you start using unhealthy coping mechanisms, such as drinking or taking drugs, this can cause or contribute to other health problems.

  • Feelings of powerlessness to do anything can lead to anger and frustration, which can damage your self-esteem and lead to depression and other anxieties.

What treatment is available?

The first step in getting effective treatment for agoraphobia is to seek professional help. Your doctor and/or mental health professional will help work out the best treatment plan for you, depending on your preferences and circumstances.

This will vary from person to person, but can include counselling or therapy, medication, relaxation training, support groups or self-help methods. Starting and going through treatment can be difficult, but remember that your mental health professional will work at a pace that suits you. Learn more about treatments for anxiety conditions here.

When you find yourself in a situation that causes you to panic, try these suggestions:

  • Slow down your breathing: feelings of panic and anxiety can increase when you breathe too quickly. Try to breathe slowly and deeply, counting to three on each breath in and again on each breath out.

  • Focus on something non-threatening: remind yourself that your frightening thoughts are a sign of your panic, rather than of what’s actually happening, and that they’ll soon pass. Try counting backwards from 100, or recall the words of a favourite song.

Get more ideas for what you can do on your own to manage symptoms here.

What can I do now?

  • Find out where you can get professional help.

  • Check out the ReachOut Forums and talk to other young people about what you're going through.

  • Practise slow and deep breathing to help you relax.