For some people, leaving home can be a reason to panic. Translated from Greek as "fear of the marketplace," agoraphobia refers to a fear of any place where escape may be difficult, including large open spaces or crowded areas, as well as various means of travel. People with agoraphobia may avoid situations such as being alone outside of the home, traveling in a car, bus, or airplane, being in a crowded area, being in enclosed spaces such as shops and cinemas, or being on a bridge.
People with agoraphobia fear such situations because they focus on thoughts that escape might be difficult in the event of an emergency or that help might not be available if they were to develop panic-like or other embarrassing symptoms. They feel high discomfort and stress and may require another person's company in such situations.
For agoraphobia to be considered as a diagnosis, the agoraphobic situations must almost always create fear and anxiety that is out of proportion to the actual danger posed; the distress typically lasts for a minimum of six months. In its most severe form, people with agoraphobia are completely unable to leave their homes.
The thoughts that usually cause fear and anxiety tend to change with age: Children often fear becoming lost, adults may fear experiencing panic-like symptoms, and older adults may fear falling. Agoraphobia often accompanies other anxiety disorders (such as panic disorder or a specific phobia) and depressive disorders.
In panic disorder, panic attacks recur, and the person develops an intense fear of having another attack. This fear—called anticipatory anxiety or fear of fear—is present most of the time and can seriously interfere with the person's life, even when a panic attack is not in progress. The majority of people with panic disorder showed signs of agoraphobia and anxiety before they developed panic disorder.
Typically, people with agoraphobia restrict themselves to a zone of safety that may include only the home or the immediate neighborhood. Any movement beyond such a zone creates mounting anxiety.
People with agoraphobia may become housebound for years, resulting in impairment of their relationships. It has been estimated that more than one-third of people with agoraphobia do not leave their homes and are unable to work.
According to DSM-5, agoraphobia involves:
- Fear or anxiety about:
- being outside of the home alone
- using public transportation
- being in enclosed places (stores, movie theaters)
- standing in line or being in a crowd
- being in open spaces (markets, parking lots)
- being in places where escape might be difficult
- Active avoidance of all situations that provoke fear and anxiety
- Becoming housebound for prolonged periods
- Feelings of detachment or estrangement from others
- Feelings of helplessness
- Dependence upon others
- Anxiety or panic attack (acute severe anxiety)
A person may be described as having agoraphobia if other mental disorders or medical conditions do not provide a better explanation for the symptoms. Additionally, it is common for people with agoraphobia to also abuse alcohol and sedative medication as a way of coping with their distress.
Can agoraphobia be disabling?
People with agoraphobia can be seriously disabled by their condition. Some are unable to work, and they may rely heavily on other family members to do their shopping and household errands, as well as accompany the affected person on rare excursions outside the safety zone.
What is the prevalence of agoraphobia?
The prevalence of agoraphobia is 1.3 percent with an incidence rate of 0.9 percent, according to the National Institute of Mental Health. The rate is slightly higher for females, 0.9 percent, compared with 0.8 percent for males. Initial onset is typically in late adolescence or early adulthood, although agoraphobia can occur in childhood as well.
The etiology of most anxiety disorders, although not fully understood, has come into sharper focus in the last decade. In broad terms, the likelihood of developing anxiety involves a combination of life experiences, psychological traits, and or genetic factors. Heritability for agoraphobia is reported to be 61 percent, making it the phobia most strongly linked to a genetic predisposition to phobias. Environmental factors that are known to be associated with the development of agoraphobia include experiencing stressful events (such as the death of a parent, being attacked or mugged) and being raised in a household characterized by little warmth and high levels of overprotection.
The treatment of phobias is often highly successful. The goal of treatment is to help the agoraphobic person function effectively, and the most effective remedy is systematic desensitization, also called exposure therapy. It is a behavioral technique in which the sufferer, under expert guidance, is gradually exposed to the feared situation and comes to understand that the feared outcomes do not materialize.
The success of treatment usually depends on the severity of the phobia. The person is first taught, then practices, techniques of relaxation. When relaxed, the individual imagines the components of the phobia, working from the least fearful to the most fearful.
Graded real-life exposure has also been used with success to help people overcome their fears. The technique involves exposure to real aversive situations, progressing from less to more extreme situations. For example, a person might be in contact with a few people before progressively spending time with larger groups of people to overcome a fear of crowds.
The individual works with a therapist to develop coping strategies to allay anxiety, such as relaxation and breathing techniques. While in-vivo, or real-life, exposure is ideal, imagined exposure is an acceptable alternative in desensitization. Treating agoraphobia with exposure therapy reduces anxiety and improves morale and quality of life in many cases.
Other types of therapy such as biofeedback, hypnosis, meditation, relaxation, or couples therapy have been found to be helpful for some patients. Cognitive-behavioral therapy (CBT) can help patients modify or eliminate thought patterns contributing to the symptoms and help them change behavior.
CBT generally requires at least 8 to 12 weeks. Some people may need more time in treatment to learn and implement their newly acquired skills. This kind of therapy, which is reported to have a low relapse rate, is effective in eliminating panic attacks or reducing their frequency. It also reduces anticipatory anxiety and the avoidance of feared situations.
Treatment may be complicated when patients have difficulty getting to appointments because of their fears. To address this issue, some therapists will go to an agoraphobic patient's home to conduct the initial sessions. Often therapists take their patients on excursions to shopping malls and other places the patients have been avoiding; this provides support and helps the patients cope with their fears.
The patient approaches a feared situation gradually, attempting to stay in spite of rising levels of anxiety. In this way, the patient sees that as frightening as the feelings are, they are not dangerous, and they do pass. In each attempt, the patient faces as much fear as he or she can stand. Patients find that with this step-by-step approach, aided by the encouragement and skilled advice of a therapist, they can gradually master their fears and enter situations that had previously seemed unapproachable.
Many therapists assign their patients "homework" to do between sessions. Sometimes patients spend only a few sessions in one-on-one contact with a therapist and continue to work on their own with the aid of a manual.
Often the patient will join a therapy group with others striving to overcome agoraphobia, meeting with them weekly to discuss progress, exchange encouragement, and receive guidance from the therapist.
Treatment with Medications
Patients who experience panic attacks as part of their agoraphobia may benefit from prescription medication to prevent panic attacks or reduce their frequency and severity, and to decrease the associated anticipatory anxiety. When patients find that their panic attacks are less frequent and severe, they are increasingly able to venture into situations that had previously been anxiety-provoking.
The groups of medications most commonly used are tricyclic antidepressants; selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors (SSRIs), such as fluoxetine (Prozac), sertraline (Zoloft), escitalopram (Lexapro), paroxetine (Paxil), and citalopram (Celexa); high-potency benzodiazepines; and monoamine oxidase inhibitors (MAOIs). Determination of which drug to use is based on considerations of safety, efficacy, and the personal needs of the patient.
SSRIs are also used to treat panic disorder when it occurs in combination with OCD, social phobia, or depression. The medications are started at low doses, which are gradually increased until they produce a beneficial effect.
The high-potency benzodiazepines—alprazolam, clonazepam, and lorazepam are members of this class—take effect rapidly, have few bothersome side effects, and are well-tolerated by the majority of patients. However, some patients, especially those who have had problems with alcohol or drug dependency, may become dependent on benzodiazepines.
Treatment with high-potency benzodiazepines is usually continued for six months to a year. One drawback of these medications is that patients may experience withdrawal symptoms—malaise, weakness, and other unpleasant side effects—when the treatment is discontinued. Reducing the dose gradually generally minimizes such problems. There may also be a recurrence of panic attacks after the medication is withdrawn.
Many people with anxiety disorders benefit from joining a self-help or support group and sharing their problems and achievements with others. Talking with a trusted friend or confidante can also provide support, but it is not a substitute for care from a mental health professional.
Stress management techniques and meditation can help people with anxiety disorders calm themselves and may enhance the effects of therapy. Aerobic exercise can also have a calming effect. Since caffeine, certain illicit drugs, and even some over-the-counter cold medications can aggravate the symptoms of anxiety disorders, they should be avoided. Check with your physician or pharmacist before taking any additional medications.
Can a combination of therapies help a person with agoraphobia?
Some patients with anxiety disorders may benefit from the combination or sequential use of psychotherapy and pharmacotherapy treatment modalities. The combined approach is said to offer rapid relief, high effectiveness, and a low relapse rate.