Agoraphobia: What Is It and How Is It Treated?

man looking out window

Any tourist or local of New York City who has visited the iconic Times Square can tell you about the overwhelming lights, crowds, and noise of the space. Billboards with blazing lights at every turn, people bumping into you (pre-Covid), and noise from the bustle of cars and street performers. A subway station with a never-ending maze of tunnels stands below, full of tourists and commuters traveling every which way. To the average person, Times Square feels inundating and overwhelming. There certainly isn’t an easy exit plan out of Times Square and, I would venture, most wouldn’t care to go there every day. 

But imagine if everywhere felt like Times Square. Nowhere would feel safe and you’d likely prefer to stay home. This is how those with agoraphobia feel all the time, fearful of entering many types of spaces, especially if there’s no easy exit. For someone with agoraphobia, being in open spaces, crowds, or outside alone is terrifying and anxiety-provoking. 

What Is Agoraphobia?

Agoraphobia is a type of anxiety disorder defined by an intense fear of places that can lead to feeling trapped, helpless, scared, or embarrassed. Types of places that bring on this fear, such as crowds or public transport, are avoided to minimize anxiety. Panic attacks are commonly experienced with agoraphobia. Someone with agoraphobia may also have panic disorder, but it depends on the person.

Agoraphobia definition and diagnosis

The term agoraphobia comes from the root “agora,” an assembly of people, and “phobia” or fear. Put together, agoraphobia means the fear of spaces with an assembly of people, which usually includes places with lines of people, crowds, and with no easy exit. This manifests as an anxiety disorder, a type of mental illness diagnosed based on certain specified criteria.

Psychologists define agoraphobia in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, 5th Edition (DSM 5) as an anxiety disorder with the fear of two or more of the following situations: 

  • Using public transportation
  • Open spaces, such as markets or parking lots
  • Enclosed spaces, such as stores and theaters 
  • Standing in line or being in a crowd
  • Being outside of the home alone

Being in these situations causes significant distress to the people with agoraphobia, so much that it can inhibit normal daily life. The deeper fear is that of feeling trapped, helpless, panicked, scared, or embarrassed, which then manifests in the fear of the above situations. People with agoraphobia worry about being able to leave a situation and fear embarrassment as well. The fears associated with agoraphobia often make it difficult for someone struggling to leave their home as they prioritize avoiding anxiety-inducing places.

Agoraphobia usually emerges in young adulthood, with 17-years-old as the average age of onset. Approximately 1.3 percent of US adults will experience agoraphobia in their lifetime. There are similar rates of agoraphobia in women and men, and yearly prevalence for women sits at .9 percent and .8 percent for men.

Agoraphobia Symptoms

Like all anxiety disorders, the symptoms associated with agoraphobia are intense and often debilitating. Feeling anxious or having a panic attack are key symptoms of agoraphobia, which may present in varying ways depending on the person. This could include dizziness, chest pain, hot flashes, among other symptoms. Here are some of the most prevalent symptoms of agoraphobia, according to Mayo Clinic:

  • Intense fear in situations involving public transport, crowds, open spaces, enclosed spaces, or leaving home.
  • Anxiety or panic attacks, symptoms of which can include:
    • Rapid heartbeat
    • Chest pain
    • Shortness of breath
    • Increased sweating
    • Upset stomach, nausea, or diarrhea
    • Hot flash or chills
    • Dizziness
    • Shakiness or trembling
    • Choking sensation
    • Numbness 
  • Sense of danger that is disproportionate to the situation
  • Avoidance of situations that may trigger fear and distress
  • Feeling a loss of control
  • Feeling out of touch with reality 

Someone dealing with these symptoms for six months or more may be diagnosed with agoraphobia by a doctor or psychologist if it’s causing them significant distress and inhibiting daily functioning. This can often look like avoiding any and all triggering places, which limits the ability to live normally. Panic disorder is another diagnosis that will be considered if panic attacks are prevalent as well. Always consult a medical or licensed mental health professional for an official diagnosis.

Causes of Agoraphobia

Agoraphobia has multiple causes that contribute to its onset . These factors include family history, genetic predisposition, comorbidity, and environmental stress. 

Family history is one of the most significant risk factors for agoraphobia. If a blood relative has agoraphobia, you are much more likely to have it as well. Research has shown you are as much as 61% more likely to have agoraphobia if someone in your family does too. Just because someone in your family struggles with agoraphobia, however, doesn’t mean you absolutely will also, it simply increases the likelihood.

Along with family history, genetic predisposition to anxious tendencies can cause agoraphobia. If you struggle with another anxiety disorder or panic disorder you are at a higher risk for agoraphobia. Comorbidity is common with agoraphobia as it often presents with other mental illnesses. This could be another anxiety disorder or a different type of mental illness, such as depression, personality disorders, or substance abuse. 

Environmental stress is also a significant factor in causing agoraphobia. History of abuse or traumatic life events, such as the death of a loved one or being attacked, can lead to fearing places that are overwhelming and lack an easy exit. This trauma, especially when combined with a predisposition towards anxiety, can lead to the onset of agoraphobia in people of all ages, but especially those in adolescence and young adulthood.

Clearly many factors contribute to agoraphobia, so if you’re experiencing symptoms of agoraphobia and relate to some or all these experiences, please seek out the help and advice of a mental health professional.

How to Treat Agoraphobia

The most effective treatment for agoraphobia includes attending talk therapy, medication, or both. Most professionals say therapy and medication work best in tandem for anxiety disorders, but everyone is different in terms of what works for them. 

Cognitive-behavioral therapy

Cognitive-behavioral therapy is the most effective type of psychotherapy used in treating agoraphobia. This method of therapy focuses on working through negative thought patterns and behaviors and finding healthier alternatives to replace them. Cognitive-behavioral therapy can help challenge intrusive fearful thoughts and avoidant behaviors. Online therapy is a great option for those with agoraphobia, especially during the pandemic — you can safely engage in therapy from the comfort of home.

Exposure therapy

Exposure therapy is also a common therapy practice used in treating agoraphobia, gradually exposing the client to their fear in a safe way so they learn to manage their anxiety. Exposure therapy uses systematic desensitization to decrease the fear associated with triggering situations over time, an important part of the treatment process.

Medication

For agoraphobia, doctors typically prescribe anti-anxiety medications or antidepressants, such as selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors. Medication can help you reach a more stable baseline for your mental health, which can make doing the work of therapy to overcome your fears in daily life easier. Different types of medication work better for everyone, so please consult a doctor or psychiatrist if you think you could benefit from medication.

The sooner someone struggling with agoraphobia can get help, the better. Agoraphobia can intensify when left untreated. Early intervention leads to better long-term outcomes. Whether therapy, medication, or a combination of the two, effective treatment options are available if you are dealing with agoraphobia.

Tips for Managing Agoraphobia

Lifestyles changes can also help with managing agoraphobia. Incorporating coping skills and ways to manage symptoms is an important part of decreasing the pervasive anxiety and fear associated with agoraphobia. Making incremental changes towards healthy habits helps ease the burden of daily life when living with agoraphobia. 

Some tips for managing agoraphobia include:

  • Prioritize self-care
    When in a heightened state of anxiety it can be hard to meet your basic needs. Prioritizing balanced eating throughout the day, getting enough sleep, and incorporating movement can improve mental health day to day.
  • Relaxation
    Practice relaxation techniques such as meditation, yoga, muscle relaxation, and deep breathing exercises.
  • Don’t avoid triggers
    Do your best to minimize the avoidance of triggering situations. The more you challenge yourself to stay in these situations the less frightening they become.
  • Avoid substances
    Limit substance use, including alcohol, caffeine, and recreational drugs. These substances can increase the intensity of anxiety.
  • Stay connected
    Embrace the support of loved ones who want to be there for you. Express to them how they can help you and be there for you. Know you have them to fall back on during scary moments.
  • Stick with treatment
    Stay consistent in following your treatment plan. Going to therapy regularly and taking medication as prescribed makes treatment more effective. Be open with your providers about how you’re doing so they can support you in your recovery.

Ultimately, seeing a licensed mental health professional is the best way to treat agoraphobia. Help is available and you can recover from this anxiety disorder. It can be intimidating to start the treatment process, but know that many people struggle to take the first step. Talkspace online therapy is a convenient and inexpensive place to start, offering affordable online therapy with just a few clicks. You can engage with expert therapists from the comfort of your home, both during the pandemic and beyond. Therapy is life-changing so don’t wait, get started today.

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