Agoraphobia is an anxiety disorder. It is an irrational fear of being trapped in places or situations where escape is difficult. People with agoraphobia may not be able to leave the house.
The exact cause of anxiety disorders is not known. Factors that may contribute to the development of agoraphobia include:
- Changes in brain chemistry or activity
- Having a nervous system that reacts excessively, even to normal stimuli
- Increased awareness of physical changes, such as increased heart rate
- Distorted thinking, which may start a cycle of fear
Agoraphobia often develops in people with panic disorders. These disorders are associated with frequent and severe panic attacks. Agoraphobia may develop when people begin to avoid certain places or situations to prevent these panic attacks.
Factors that may increase your chance of agoraphobia include:
- History of panic attacks or panic disorder
- A tendency to be nervous or anxious
- Stressful situations
- Family members with panic disorder or phobias
- History of exposure to traumatic events
- Other psychiatric disorders
- Fear of being in a crowd, shopping, standing in line, or similar activities
- Fear of riding in a car, bus, or train
- Creation of a safe zone
- Feelings of anxiety when outside the safe zone
- Fear of being alone outside of the home
- Avoidance of situations that might cause a panic attack
- Restriction of activities outside the home
- Feeling of being safer with a trusted friend or family member
Feared situations may trigger a panic attack. Attacks start quickly and peak in about 10 minutes. A panic attack usually includes four or more of the following:
- Intense fear
- Rapid heartbeat
- Pounding or racing feeling in the chest
- Shortness of breath
- Chest pain
- Hot flashes or chills
- Numbness or tingling
- Feeling of loss of control or "going crazy"
- Fear of having a heart attack or dying
Agoraphobia is also commonly associated with the following conditions:
You will be asked about your symptoms and medical history. A physical exam will be done. Agoraphobia will be diagnosed by the type and duration of symptoms.
You may be asked questions about your:
- Use of alcohol and drugs
- Mental health history
- Family's mental health history
There are no tests for agoraphobia or panic disorder. Your doctor may order heart or blood tests done to look for an underlying cause.
Treatment aims to help you overcome irrational fears and live more independently. Goals include:
- Reducing the number and severity of panic attacks
- Learning to manage panic attacks that do occur
Treatment of agoraphobia is similar to the treatment of panic disorder. Treatments may include:
Cognitive therapy can help to change troublesome thought patterns. Behavioral therapy will help you learn how you can alter your actions. The combination therapy will help you:
- Identify and change anxious thoughts
- Use relaxation techniques to decrease feelings of anxiety
- Control breathing by taking slower, deeper breaths
- Cope with physical changes associated with anxiety
- Confront feared situations
Exposure therapy exposes you to the factor causing the fear while in a safe environment. The sessions often include repeated, detailed imagining of the traumatic experience. The therapy will help people face their fear and gain control of it while it is happening. Exposure therapy methods range anywhere from a gradual approach to the fear to complete confrontation all at once.
Exposure therapy may be done alone or in combination with other treatments.
Your doctor may prescribe medication as well as therapy. Medication options may include:
- Benzodiazepines—may cause dependence
- Other anti-anxiety medications
It is important to take all medications as instructed by the doctor.
Agoraphobia often develops as a response to panic attacks. If you have had a panic attack, instead of avoiding the place or situation, seek medical care. Early treatment for panic attacks can help prevent agoraphobia.
American Psychiatric Association
Mental Health America
Canadian Mental Health Association
Mental Health Canada
Agoraphobia. EBSCO DynaMed website. Available at: http://www.ebscohost.com/dynamed/what. Updated October 17, 2014. Accessed November 10, 2014
Lenders JW, Eisenhofer G, et al. Phaeochromocytoma. Lancet. 2005;20-26;366:665-675.
Panic Disorder & Agoraphobia. Anxiety and Depression Association of America website. Available at: http://www.adaa.org/understanding-anxiety/panic-disorder-agoraphobia. Accessed November 10, 2014.
Phobias. American Psychiatric Association website. Available at: http://www.psychiatry.org/phobias. Accessed November 10, 2014.
Phobias. Mental Health America website. Available at: http://www.mentalhealthamerica.net/go/phobias. Accessed November 10, 2014.
PTSD. American Psychiatric Association website. Available at: http://www.psychiatry.org/ptsd. Accessed November 10, 2014.
Symptoms. Anxiety and Depression Association of America website. Available at: http://www.adaa.org/understanding-anxiety/panic-disorder-agoraphobia/symptoms. Accessed November 10, 2014.
Last reviewed December 2014 by Michael Woods, MD
Please be aware that this information is provided to supplement the care provided by your physician. It is neither intended nor implied to be a substitute for professional medical advice. CALL YOUR HEALTHCARE PROVIDER IMMEDIATELY IF YOU THINK YOU MAY HAVE A MEDICAL EMERGENCY. Always seek the advice of your physician or other qualified health provider prior to starting any new treatment or with any questions you may have regarding a medical condition.