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Agoraphobia: Types, Causes, Symptoms, Treatment & More

Last Updated: November 6, 2023

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Agoraphobia is an anxiety disorder that can impact daily life, but treatment can help you manage this condition and improve your quality of life.

Agoraphobia is an anxiety disorder that can make it difficult to function in daily life and be successful at work or school. Those with agoraphobia live with significant levels of fear and anxiety, but with treatment, it is possible to learn to manage the condition and the negative effect it has on quality of life. 

What Is Agoraphobia?

Agoraphobia belongs to a class of mental health conditions called anxiety disorders. People with symptoms of agoraphobia have an intense fear of situations where they might be unable to leave or escape. In extreme cases, someone with agoraphobia may become housebound because they are so fearful of situations that occur outside the home. 

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Types of Agoraphobia

Sometimes, people refer to different types of agoraphobia because different situations can trigger agoraphobia symptoms. To be diagnosed, a person must show extreme fear of at least two of the following five situations:

  • Riding in public transportation
  • Being in an open space
  • Being in an enclosed space
  • Waiting in line or being in a crowd
  • Being away from home alone 

Causes of Agoraphobia

There is not one specific cause of agoraphobia; instead, a combination of risk factors can lead to the development of this anxiety disorder. In general, risk factors for anxiety disorders include genetics and environmental factors. For instance, having a family history of an anxiety disorder or other mental health condition increases the risk that someone will develop an anxiety disorder, suggesting a genetic component at play. 

Environmental factors can also increase the risk of an anxiety disorder like agoraphobia. These can include stressful or traumatic life events. While genetics certainly play a role in the risk of developing an anxiety disorder, in some cases, the family environment can explain why anxiety disorders tend to run in families. 

Risk Factors for Agoraphobia 

Beyond the general risk factors for anxiety disorders, some risk factors are more specific to agoraphobia. For example, research has demonstrated the following factors increase the risk of developing agoraphobia:

  • Having an anxiety disorder called panic disorder, in which a person experiences repeated episodes of intense fear called a panic attack
  • Being diagnosed with another phobia, such as a fear of heights or flying
  • Female gender
  • Being younger 

 Agoraphobia Symptoms

The specific symptoms of agoraphobia are contained within the diagnostic criteria in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders. These symptoms can be broken down into the disorder’s physical, emotional and behavioral indicators. 

Physical Symptoms

The physical symptoms of agoraphobia are often related to panic disorder, which can occur with agoraphobia. A person with agoraphobia may experience a panic attack when exposed to a crowd or an event outside the home, leading to physical symptoms that can include: 

  • Racing heart
  • Sweatiness
  • Trembling or tingling sensations
  • Chest pain 

Emotional Symptoms

Emotional symptoms related to agoraphobia include:

  • Extreme fear related to situations like being in a crowd, using public transportation or being away from home alone
  • Enduring excessive anxiety when exposed to one of the common agoraphobia situations
  • Showing signs of panic when away from home or exposed to a crowd
  • Struggling with embarrassment or worry related to panic symptoms 

Behavioral Symptoms 

Behavioral symptoms related to agoraphobia include:

  • Avoiding situations that trigger the extreme fear (i.e., staying home from large events where there is likely to be a crowd)
  • Insisting on having a companion when leaving the house
  • Restricting travel or participation in public events 

Diagnosing Agoraphobia

If you think you may have agoraphobia, it’s important to reach out to a professional for diagnosis and treatment. A physician with experience in treating mental health disorders can diagnose conditions like agoraphobia; doctors not as experienced in treating mental health disorders can refer you to a mental health professional, like a psychologist or clinical social worker, who can make a diagnosis. 

The professional making a diagnosis will gather information about your health history, family situation and current symptoms to determine if you meet criteria for agoraphobia, as outlined in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders. The professional may use symptom checklists or assessment tools, such as questionnaires or surveys, to clarify which symptoms you’re experiencing and whether they meet the diagnostic criteria for agoraphobia. 

Agoraphobia Treatment Options

Agoraphobia is typically treated with therapy, medication or a combination. Studies have found that cognitive-behavioral therapy (CBT) can benefit anxiety symptoms related to agoraphobia. A particular form of CBT called exposure therapy is often utilized to treat agoraphobia. This therapy modality gradually exposes patients to the source of their phobia with a therapist’s support.

While talk therapy can help treat agoraphobia, patients who prefer medication or experience more severe symptoms may benefit from taking medications. Some patients may only take medications, whereas others may take medications and participate in therapy. 

Common medications used in the treatment of agoraphobia include selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors (SSRIs), which are often used to treat depression but are also the first line of treatment for agoraphobia. While SSRIs are typically the first choice because of their safety and mild side effects, other medications that may be used include:

  • Serotonin-norepinephrine reuptake inhibitors (SNRIs)
  • Tricyclic antidepressants
  • Benzodiazepines 

Agoraphobia and Co-Occurring Disorders

A person with two or more mental health conditions is said to have co-occurring disorders. Aside from panic disorder, which often occurs with agoraphobia, those with this anxiety disorder are at increased risk of the following mental health conditions:

  • Major depressive disorder
  • Persistent depressive disorder
  • Substance use disorders or addictions

Sometimes, people may turn to drugs or alcohol to cope with symptoms related to agoraphobia. Over time, this can lead to the development of a substance use disorder or addiction, which can make it more difficult to treat agoraphobia. 

Supportive Coping Strategies

In addition to seeking professional treatment, you can practice healthy coping strategies to make agoraphobia more manageable. Consider the following:

  • Enlist social support: Turning to supportive friends and family can be critical when you live with agoraphobia. Having trusted people in your corner when you’re having a hard time can provide you with a strong support network. You might consider talking with a few close loved ones about what you’re experiencing so they can support you when symptoms worsen. 
  • Practice relaxation skills: Relaxing techniques such as deep breathing or meditation can be beneficial when experiencing symptoms of agoraphobia. When you find yourself in a situation that generally provokes feelings of distress, you might benefit from practicing one of these skills. 

You can also practice the technique of grounding, in which you focus your attention on specific sensory stimuli, such as five things you can see in the environment or three things you can hear around you. Paying attention to the present moment in this way can take your focus off panic symptoms and remind you that you’re safe. 

  • Make time for self-care: When you have an anxiety disorder like agoraphobia, making time for self-care is essential. This means taking time to rest, rejuvenate, and engage in enjoyable hobbies that reduce stress and keep you healthy. This can include eating nutritious foods, spending time with friends and exercising regularly. 

Seeking Professional Help for Agoraphobia

When you experience agoraphobia symptoms, the best way to manage them is to reach out for professional treatment. If you are looking for agoraphobia treatment in Missouri, The Recovery Village Kansas City is here to help. We offer a full continuum of treatment options for mental health disorders and co-occurring addictions, including medical detox, residential treatment, partial hospitalization programming and intensive outpatient services. Contact one of our Recovery Advocates today to get started.

Sources

National Institute of Mental Health. “Anxiety Disorders.” April 2023. Accessed October 5, 2023. 

Bienvenu, O. Joseph, et al. “Agoraphobia in adults: Incidence and longitudinal relationship with panic.” The British Journal of Psychiatry, 2006. Accessed October 5, 2023. 

Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration. “Panic Disorder and Agoraphobia Criteria Changes from DSM-IV to DSM-5.” June 2016. Accessed October 5, 2023. 

Balaram, Kripa; Marwaha, Raman. “Agoraphobia.” National Library of Medicine, February 13, 2023. Accessed October 5, 2023. 

Carl, Emily, et al. “Virtual reality exposure therapy for anxiety and related disorders: A meta-analysis of randomized controlled trials.” Journal of Anxiety Disorders, January 2019. Accessed October 5, 2023. 

Zerubavel, Noga; Messman-Moore, Terri. “Staying Present: Incorporating Mindfulness into Therapy for Dissociation.” Mindfulness, 2015. Accessed October 5, 2023.