Agoraphobia is an intense fear and anxiety of being in places where it is hard to escape, or where help might not be available. Agoraphobia usually involves fear of crowds, bridges, or of being outside alone.
Anxiety disorder - agoraphobia
The exact cause of agoraphobia is unknown. Agoraphobia sometimes occurs when a person has had a panic attack and begins to fear situations that might lead to another panic attack.
With agoraphobia, you avoid places or situations because you do not feel safe in public places. The fear is worse when the place is crowded.
Symptoms of agoraphobia include:
- Being afraid of spending time alone
- Being afraid of places where escape might be hard
- Being afraid of losing control in a public place
- Depending on others
- Feeling detached or separated from others
- Feeling helpless
- Feeling that the body is not real
- Feeling that the environment is not real
- Having an unusual temper or agitation
- Staying in the house for long periods
Physical symptoms can include:
- Chest pain or discomfort
- Dizziness or fainting
- Nausea or other stomach distress
- Racing heart
- Short of breath
Exams and Tests
The health care provider will look at your history of agoraphobia, and will get a description of the behavior from you, your family, or friends.
The goal of treatment is to help you feel and function better. The success of treatment usually depends in part on how severe the agoraphobia is. Treatment most often combines talk therapy with a medicine. Certain medicines usually used to treat depression may be helpful for this disorder. They work by preventing your symptoms or making them less severe. You must take these medicines every day. DO NOT stop taking them or change the dosage without talking with your provider.
- Selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors (SSRIs) are most often the first choice of antidepressant.
- Serotonin-norepinephrine reuptake inhibitors (SNRIs) are another choice.
Other medicines used to treat depression or medicines used to treat seizures may also be tried.
Medicines called sedatives or hypnotics may also be prescribed.
- These medicines should only be taken under a doctor's direction.
- Your doctor will prescribe a limited amount of these drugs. They should not to be used everyday.
- They may be used when symptoms become very severe or when you are about to be exposed to something that always brings on your symptoms.
Cognitive-behavioral therapy (CBT) is a type of talk therapy. It involves 10 to 20 visits with a mental health professional over several weeks. CBT helps you change the thoughts that cause your condition. It may involve:
- Understanding and controlling distorted feelings or views of stressful events or situations
- Learning stress management and relaxation techniques
- Relaxing, then imagining the things that cause the anxiety, working from the least fearful to the most fearful (called systematic desensitization and exposure therapy)
You may also be slowly exposed to the real-life situation that causes the fear to help you overcome it.
A healthy lifestyle that includes exercise, enough rest, and good nutrition can also be helpful.
You can ease the stress of having agoraphobia by joining a support group. Sharing with others who have common experiences and problems can help you not feel alone.
Support groups are usually not a good substitute for talk therapy or taking medicine, but can be a helpful addition.
Resources for more information include:
Anxiety and Depression Association of America -- www.adaa.org
Freedom from Fear -- www.freedomfromfear.org
Most people can get better with medicines and CBT. Without early and effective help, the disorder may become harder to treat.
Some people with agoraphobia may:
- Use alcohol or other drugs while trying to self-medicate.
- Be unable to function at work or in social situations.
- Feel isolated, lonely, depressed, or suicidal.
When to Contact a Medical Professional
Call for an appointment with your provider if you have symptoms of agoraphobia.
Early treatment of panic disorder can often prevent agoraphobia.
American Psychiatric Association. Diagnostic and statistical manual of mental disorders. 5th ed. Arlington, VA: American Psychiatric Publishing. 2013.
Calkins AW, Bui E, Taylor CT, Pollack MH, LeBeau RT, Simon NM. Anxiety disorders. In: Stern TA, Fava M, Wilens TE, Rosenbaum JF, eds. Massachusetts General Hospital Comprehensive Clinical Psychiatry. 2nd ed. Philadelphia, PA: Elsevier; 2016:chap 32.
Gabbard GO. Generalized anxiety disorder. In: Gabbard GO. Gabbard's Treatments of Psychiatric Disorders. 5th ed. Arlington, VA: American Psychiatric Publishing; 2014:chap 19.
Reviewed By: Fred K. Berger, MD, addiction and forensic psychiatrist, Scripps Memorial Hospital, La Jolla, CA. Also reviewed by David Zieve, MD, MHA, Isla Ogilvie, PhD, and the A.D.A.M. Editorial team.