Reviewed by Lauren Guilbeault
Agoraphobia isn’t extremely common. After all, less than one percent of U.S. adults have this mental condition in a year, and about 1.3% have it at some time in their lives. But if you have agoraphobia, it can disrupt your life dramatically. If you suspect you or someone you know have this disorder, the first thing you can do is find out what it is, what it looks and feels like, and how it’s treated.
Definition Of Agoraphobia
So, what is agoraphobia? The first thing you need to know is that agoraphobia is a type of anxiety disorder. To be more specific, it’s a phobic disorder that involves an extreme fear of certain situations. If you are agoraphobic, you have intense fear and experience anxiety symptoms when you are in a situation you might not escape. People with agoraphobia tend to avoid these situations and places where they might feel trapped.
Who Gets Agoraphobia?
Anyone could potentially get agoraphobia. However, people with the following risk factors may be more likely to develop agoraphobia.
- Other relatives who have or had agoraphobia
- Past sexual or physical abuse
- Substance abuse
- Other phobias
- Other anxiety disorders
- Any age, though the average onset happens at 20 years old
How To Recognize Agoraphobia
Assessing your symptoms is always tricky. It’s hard to be objective and accurate when you’re considering your thoughts and actions. But with a little more information, you will begin to understand more clearly what agoraphobia is and recognize any signs of it you might experience.
Types Of Fears
All phobias are based on fear. However, the types of fears that people with agoraphobia feel have their unique flavor. Some of the things that might cause you panic or terror if you have agoraphobia include:
- Fear of leaving home or staying away from home
- Fear of social situations where you’re alone
- Fear of being trapped or unable to escape
- Fear of losing control publicly
- Fear of crowds
- Fear of open spaces
- Fear of using public transportation
- Fear of being home alone
- Fear of panic attacks
- Fear of having a heart attack
Besides the specific kinds of fear that agoraphobic people feel, you may experience other symptoms that range from the emotional to the physical to the behavioral. Here are the most common signs of agoraphobia and symptoms of the panic attacks that often occur with this disorder.
- Feeling anxious or agitated
- Feeling detached from others
- Short of breath
- Racing heart
- Chest pain
- Tingling or numbness
- Hot flashes
- Avoiding triggers
To complete your picture of agoraphobia, imagine the thoughts, feelings, and behaviors you might notice if you have this mental disorder. Please read the following examples and consider whether they sound familiar to you.
Notice that many of these examples include a situation where the feelings, thoughts, sensations, or behaviors might happen. That’s because the term “agoraphobia” refers to a combination of your anxiety symptoms and the types of triggers that bring them on. These are just examples, but your experiences might be similar.
- You feel anxious when you have to get on a city bus.
- You feel panicked when you think about going to a party without your mate.
- You feel afraid when you have to take an elevator.
- You feel terrified of losing control in a job interview.
- You feel agitated at the thought of going to a shopping mall where you’ll be among many people you don’t know.
- Your heart starts racing the minute you step onto a plane.
- You have shortness of breath and a choking sensation anytime you walk out of your front door.
- You feel sick to your stomach before and during your workday.
- You begin to tremble and sweat as you find your place in a crowded theater.
- You have a full-blown panic attack, complete with a fast heartbeat and chest pain when you get stuck in an elevator.
- You worry that your agoraphobia or panic attack symptoms might damage your physical health.
- You obsess about things that might go wrong when you go out with a friend.
- You can’t stop thinking about your fears.
- You spend a lot of time coming up with reasons why you shouldn’t go out with friends.
- You start avoiding social situations.
- You don’t interact with your friends or family the way you used to do.
- You don’t go anywhere unless you have a trusted companion with you.
- You stay home anytime you can, and sometimes even when you need to go out.
- You choose to stay home if the only way to get to your destination is to take public transportation.
- You skip work because you don’t want to feel the anxiety.
- Learn to meditate and practice it every day.
- Use relaxation techniques and deep breathing to calm yourself.
Several agoraphobia treatments have proven effective for people with this condition. Mental health professionals can prescribe medications that help or offer various types of psychotherapy. There are also a few things you can do to decrease your fears and symptoms of agoraphobia.
Whether you fit these categories or not, you may wonder how to know if you do have agoraphobia. A quick way to check your symptoms is to take a simple online agoraphobia screening test online. If you decide to seek treatment, your psychiatrist or therapist can perform a more thorough diagnosis and determine your condition’s severity. Then, they can suggest treatments that might help you.
Psychotherapy can be a long-lasting solution to the extreme fear that comes with agoraphobia. They can help you understand your condition, change your thoughts, modify your behavior, and face your fears. Counselors who specialize in helping people with this condition can be especially helpful.
Cognitive Behavioral Therapy
Every emotion you feel, and behavior you choose has one or more thoughts behind it. If you have agoraphobia, some of your physical sensations may be triggered by thoughts, too. In Cognitive Behavioral Therapy, your counselor helps you uncover those thoughts. Then, you can learn to assess them and determine whether they’re accurate and helpful.
Many people don’t realize that you can choose different thoughts if you decide that’s best. You don’t have to dwell on every idea that comes up for you. Your therapist can help and support you through these decisions and be there for you as you take courageous steps to change your behaviors.
Exposure is another type of therapy that can be highly effective in treating agoraphobia. This is a process your therapist guides you through gradually increasing exposure to the things you fear. This works to help you get used to these situations a little at a time. This type of therapy involves expressing and discussing your fears. Your therapist can teach you coping skills that you can use at each stage of the exposure process. Along the way, you and your therapist can talk about your progress and adapt the exposure plan to meet your needs.
You start with the parts of these fears that are the least threatening to you. For example, you might begin by viewing a photo of an elevator. Your next step might be to stand outside the elevator and push the button. In the next session, you might get inside the elevator and take it up one floor. You can do this process in real life or using virtual reality. For your final step, you could take the elevator from the basement to the top floor.
If you have severe agoraphobia, your counselor may suggest medications. These meds can ease your symptoms and often make it easier to go through the process of psychotherapy. Several different types of medication may be used for this condition. Some of them are SSRI antidepressants like Paxil or Prozac; SSNRI antidepressants like Cymbalta or Effexor; tricyclic antidepressants like Pamelor and Elavil; anti-anxiety meds such as Klonopin or Xanax.
Agoraphobia can be extremely difficult to overcome without help. One reason is that it’s hard to think rationally when you’re overwhelmed by fear. Another is that you need help from an expert who has training and experience treating this mental disorder. However, there are some things you can do to help yourself, either along with treatment or on your own.
- Listen to music when fearful thoughts come up, or you’re feeling agitated.
- Spend a little time each day remembering the pleasant experience you had before the agoraphobia started.
- Be patient with yourself, and recognize your progress.
- Eat right, get enough sleep, and exercise regularly.
- Watch comedy shows or funny movies to get your mind off your fears.
- Make a short checklist of things you want to do each week to deal with your agoraphobia.
- Volunteer or do something nice for a friend or family member.
- Interact with others, even if it’s just a text conversation or a phone call.
- Allow yourself to feel safe at home for a short time each day; then, get out and face the world.
Benefits Of Overcoming Agoraphobia
When you overcome agoraphobia, you will likely feel much calmer and more confident. You may be able to leave the panic attacks and distressing physical symptoms behind. When you can do those two things, your whole world can open up. It becomes easier to take care of your basic needs, go where you want to go, and accomplish your most cherished goals.