Agoraphobia

Authored by , Reviewed by Dr John Cox | Last edited | Certified by The Information Standard

Agoraphobia is an intense fear of being in public places where you feel escape might be difficult. So you tend to avoid public places and may not even venture out from home. It can greatly affect your life. Treatment can work well in many cases. Treatment options include cognitive behavioural therapy (CBT) and medication, usually with a selective serotonin reuptake inhibitor (SSRI) antidepressant.

Many people think that agoraphobia means a fear of public places and open spaces. However, this is just part of it. If you have agoraphobia you tend to have a number of fears of various places and situations. So, for example, you may have a fear of:

  • Entering shops, crowds and public places.
  • Travelling in trains, buses, or planes.
  • Being on a bridge.
  • Being in a lift.
  • Being in a cinema, restaurant, etc, where there is no easy exit.
  • Being anywhere far from your home.

However, these all stem from one underlying fear. That is, a fear of being in a place where help will not be available, or where you feel it may be difficult to escape to a safe place (usually to your home).

When you are in a feared place you become very anxious and distressed and you have an intense desire to get out. Read more about anxiety symptoms.

You may even have a panic attack.

Even thinking about going to such places can make you anxious. To avoid this anxiety, you tend to avoid feared places.

The severity of agoraphobia can vary greatly. Some people with agoraphobia can cope quite well outside their home by sticking to familiar areas and routines. Some people with agoraphobia can go out from their home and travel on buses, trains, etc, without becoming anxious if they go with a friend or family member. There may be times when they have good spells where they cope better than at other times.

To prevent anxiety, many people with agoraphobia stay inside their homes for most or all of the time.

Agoraphobia typically develops between the ages of 25 and 35 years and is usually a lifelong problem unless treated. However, it can sometimes develop at a younger or older age than this. Twice as many women as men are affected.

Agoraphobia and panic disorder

Many, but not all, people with agoraphobia also have a condition called panic disorder. Briefly, people with panic disorder have panic attacks that occur suddenly, often without warning. A panic attack is like a sudden and severe attack of anxiety and fear.

See separate leaflet called Panic Attack and Panic Disorder for more details.

Cognitive behavioural therapy (CBT)

CBT helps you to change certain ways that you think, feel and behave. It is a useful treatment for various mental health problems, including phobias.

  • Cognitive therapy is based on the idea that certain ways of thinking can trigger, or fuel, certain mental health problems such as anxiety, depression and phobias.
  • Behavioural therapy aims to change any behaviours which are harmful or not helpful. In agoraphobia, the therapist will usually help you to face up to feared situations, a little bit at a time. A first step may be to go for a very short walk from your home with the therapist who gives support and advice. Over time, a longer walk may be possible, then a walk to the shops, and then a trip on a bus, etc. The therapist teaches you how to control anxiety when you face up to the feared situations and places - for example, by using deep-breathing techniques. This technique of behavioural therapy is called exposure therapy - where you are exposed more and more to feared situations and you learn how to cope.
  • Cognitive behavioural therapy (CBT) is a mixture of the two where you may benefit from changing both you thoughts and your behaviours.

Antidepressant medicines

Antidepressants are commonly used to treat depression; however, they also help to reduce the symptoms of phobias, even if you are not depressed. They work by interfering with brain chemicals (neurotransmitters) - such as serotonin - which may be involved in causing anxiety symptoms.

  • Antidepressants do not work straightaway. It takes 2-4 weeks before their effect builds up.
  • Antidepressants are not tranquillisers and are not usually addictive.
  • There are several types of antidepressants, each with various pros and cons. For example, they differ in their possible side-effects. However, selective serotonin reuptake inhibitor (SSRI) antidepressants (such as sertraline or paroxetine) are the ones most commonly used for anxiety disorders.

Note: after first starting an antidepressant, in some people anxiety symptoms become worse for a few days before they start to improve.

A combination of CBT and an SSRI antidepressant may work better in some cases than either treatment alone.

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Further reading and references

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