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.
Symptoms of agoraphobia
The symptoms and signs of agoraphobia may include:
- anxiety in response to being away from an environment that feels ‘safe’
- panic attack including symptoms such as breathlessness, sweating, dizziness, fast heart rate, choking sensations, nausea, and feelings of extreme fear or dread
- anticipation of anxiety if the person is required to leave their safe environment
- low self-esteem and loss of self-confidence
- reluctance to leave the house or venture beyond familiar surrounds
- depression, which can sometimes accompany the condition.
Agoraphobia develops over time
Agoraphobia usually begins with a stressful event – for example, a person loses a job or a relationship ends. They feel distressed and limit their contact with the outside world (this is called ‘avoidance behaviour’). As time passes, they may consider more and more public places as ‘out of bounds’ until they are eventually confined to their home.
In other cases, a stressful life event triggers a panic attack. Since panic attacks are so unpleasant, the person may avoid any situation or place that they think might trigger another attack until many situations and places are eventually feared and avoided.
Complications of agoraphobia
Untreated, agoraphobia can severely reduce a person’s quality of life. For example:
- Activities outside of the home such as work, school, socialising, hobbies and many forms of exercise are out of reach.
- Financial hardship, isolation, loneliness and boredom may lead to greater feelings of distress and increase the risk of depression.
- The person may recognise that their fear is irrational, but feel powerless to do anything about it.
- They may feel angry and frustrated with themselves.
- These negative feelings damage self-esteem and contribute to depression, and other anxieties and fears.
- The person may try to cope using unhealthy methods (such as comfort eating, drugs or alcohol), which in turn can cause or contribute to further health problems.
Diagnosis of agoraphobia
Diagnosis is usually based on the person’s reported symptoms. However, the doctor may run a series of medical tests to make sure the symptoms are not caused by an underlying physical illness. The doctor may suggest referral to a psychologist or psychiatrist for further evaluation and treatment.
Treatment for agoraphobia
Agoraphobia responds well to treatment. The treatment options suggested by your doctor or therapist will depend on your circumstances and preferences, but may include:
- a course of medications, such as antidepressants or anti-anxiety medications
- cognitive behaviour therapy and exposure therapy
- counselling and talk therapy
- relaxation training
- support groups
- instruction in self-help methods.
Self-help methods to manage agoraphobia
The key to conquering agoraphobia is learning to control anxiety symptoms and progressively going into the situations that you fear.
Be guided by your doctor or therapist, but general self-help suggestions include:
- Breathe slowly – hyperventilation (breathing too fast and too shallow) will make the symptoms of a panic attack worse. Consciously slow your breathing. Concentrate on expanding your abdomen, not your chest, with every inhalation.
- Use relaxation techniques – learning to relax may include methods such as meditation, deep muscle relaxation or regular exercise. You may need to experiment to find the relaxation method or methods that work best for you.
- Find out about your condition – overcoming agoraphobia involves understanding how anxiety affects the mind and body.
- Change your lifestyle – it may help to limit or avoid caffeine, alcohol and certain medications. Regular exercise burns off stress chemicals and is known to reduce anxiety levels. See your doctor for further information and advice.
- Gradually increase exposure – this involves facing the feared environment in a controlled way. This will help you to see that nothing bad is going to happen. Typically, you choose the least threatening environment first, take along a trusted friend or your therapist as support, and use slow breathing and the other coping methods you’ve learned to control your anxiety. With regular practise, the fear of the place or situation will ease. This technique is also known as systematic desensitisation. It’s important to have the guidance of a mental health professional.
Where to get help
- Your doctor
- Clinical psychologist
- Your local community health Centre