Conditions

What Is Agoraphobia? Understanding the Causes and Treatments

Living with agoraphobia can be challenging and lonely but you don’t have to face agoraphobia alone. By using the right tools and seeking support, you can effectively manage agoraphobia and regain control of your life.

therapist sean abraham By Sean Abraham, LCSW

Updated on May 13, 2024

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Living with agoraphobia can be challenging and lonely. Simple things like going outside or being around people can feel overwhelming. Fortunately, there’s hope. 

Understanding more about this condition is the first step toward getting better. Here, we’ll share helpful information on agoraphobia, ways to help manage it, and tips on finding the right therapist.

What is Agoraphobia? 

Agoraphobia is classified as an anxiety disorder, one of the most common mental illnesses, affecting about 19.1% of adults aged 18 and older in the United States annually. Agoraphobia is characterized by an intense fear of situations or places where it may be challenging to escape or get help quickly. It typically starts around the age of 20 and is commonly seen in people under the age of 55. Most individuals with agoraphobia develop it by the age of 35.

Tahara DeBarrows, a licensed marriage and family therapist (LMFT) with Grow Therapy, explains that agoraphobia is diagnosed based on specific criteria outlined in the DSM-5, a manual used by mental health professionals. “According to the DSM-5, individuals with agoraphobia have a marked fear or anxiety about using public transportation, being in open spaces, being in enclosed places, standing in line or being in a crowd, or being outside of the home alone. To receive a diagnosis, the person must experience significant fear or anxiety about at least two or more of these situations, along with other factors mentioned in the manual.”

Symptoms of Agoraphobia

Common symptoms of agoraphobia include panic attacks, fear of open spaces, or being outside the comfort of one’s home. Other physical symptoms include:

These physical symptoms can make the distress that you feel from agoraphobia even worse, creating a compounding effect and reinforcing the need for a diagnosis, treatment, and ongoing support.

Challenging Activities for People with Agoraphobia

Agoraphobia can create a fear of feeling trapped and an inability to escape. It’s common for people with agoraphobia to feel a loss of control and increased anxiety in crowded or unfamiliar situations.

For instance, simply going shopping or dining at a restaurant can trigger intense nervousness. Attending social gatherings can be challenging due to the fear of being around unfamiliar people. As a result, going out and enjoying yourself becomes incredibly difficult. This fear may restrict your ability to explore and embrace new environments, as you tend to avoid places or activities that might cause stress or anxiety.

Risk Factors for Agoraphobia

People with a panic disorder — which involves sudden and intense fear attacks — may be more at risk for agoraphobia. It’s important to understand that agoraphobia does not result from weakness or a character fault. It occurs because of a combination of many different things. By learning about these factors, we can find ways to prevent agoraphobia, intervene early if it does happen, and treat it successfully.

Agoraphobia is influenced by various risk factors that can increase the likelihood of its development:

Family History of Anxiety Disorders

A family history of anxiety disorders, like panic disorder or specific phobias, can make someone more likely to develop agoraphobia. This suggests that anxiety-related conditions may run in the family due to genetics.

High-Stress Levels

Experiencing ongoing stress or facing significant life challenges, such as financial problems, relationship issues, or work pressures, can contribute to agoraphobia. The constant strain from these stressors can trigger anxiety and worsen symptoms.

History of Physical or Sexual Abuse

People who have gone through physical or sexual abuse may have a higher chance of developing agoraphobia. Traumatic events can deeply affect mental health and increase the risk of anxiety disorders.

Other Traumatic Events

Agoraphobia could also be related to other forms of trauma. Examples can include being in a massive storm, suffering a heart attack at the store, getting into a car accident, being in an active shooter environment  – these could all lead to agoraphobia as well.

Remember, these risk factors can make someone more vulnerable to developing agoraphobia, but they don’t guarantee its occurrence. Each person’s situation is unique, and having these risk factors doesn’t mean someone will have agoraphobia. However, understanding these factors can help you identify potential vulnerabilities and know when to get support and help.

Therapy for agoraphobia

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Diagnosing Agoraphobia

When diagnosing agoraphobia, a mental health professional will thoroughly assess your symptoms to understand your situation better. They will use various methods to gather information and make an accurate diagnosis. Here’s what you can expect during the diagnostic process:

Discussion and Questioning

The mental health professional will engage in conversations with you to learn about your experiences and symptoms. They may ask specific questions about your fears, panic attacks, and how these symptoms impact your daily life.

Observing Your Responses

The professional will carefully observe your reactions to different situations and stimuli that trigger anxiety. This observation helps them understand the severity and specific triggers of your agoraphobia.

Ruling Out Other Conditions

The mental health professional will consider other possible causes for your symptoms to ensure an accurate diagnosis. They will rule out any underlying medical conditions contributing to your anxiety or panic-like symptoms.

Following Expert Guidelines

The professional will follow established guidelines and criteria, such as those provided by diagnostic manuals, to determine if you meet the criteria for agoraphobia.

Getting the Right Treatment

Once diagnosed, the mental health professional can recommend appropriate treatment options tailored to your specific needs. They will work with you to develop a personalized treatment plan that may include therapy, medication, or a combination of both.

Treating Agoraphobia

About 2% of women and 1% of men have agoraphobia during any 12-month period. There are different options you can try to treat agoraphobia. While therapy is often used to help manage agoraphobia, medications can also be prescribed to alleviate symptoms and support the overall treatment process. 

The following medications are commonly prescribed to treat agoraphobia:

Remember, it’s important to talk to a healthcare professional who can prescribe the right medication for you and monitor its effects. Medication alone is not usually enough for treating agoraphobia, so therapy and other coping strategies are often part of the treatment plan.

Talk Therapy for Agoraphobia 

Talk therapy, or psychotherapy, is a helpful approach to treating agoraphobia. One form of talk therapy called cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) is particularly effective. In CBT, you work closely with a therapist who helps you understand and change negative thoughts and behaviors contributing to your anxiety. 

DeBarrows says that “Clients should seek therapists trained in CBT (Cognitive Behavioral Therapy) which is a type of psychotherapy that’s theory states our thoughts affect how we feel and how we behave.” 

Dialectical Behavior Therapy also has a list of skills that could assist with emotional regulation and distress tolerance related to agoraphobia, such as Opposite Action or Radical Acceptance.

Exposure Therapy for Agoraphobia 

Exposure involves gradually exposing yourself to situations or places that trigger anxiety or fear — in a controlled manner. 

With the guidance of a therapist, you start by facing less anxiety-provoking situations and gradually work your way up to more challenging ones. For instance, if you’re fearful of crowded places, your therapist may start by accompanying you to a moderately busy park. As you become more comfortable, you can gradually increase exposure, like going to a shopping mall during less busy hours. Over time, this therapy helps you confront your fears and realize that the anxiety decreases as you face them.

Relaxation Techniques for Agoraphobia

Relaxation techniques are helpful strategies for managing agoraphobia and anxiety symptoms. Deep breathing exercises and mindfulness practices can help you relax, reduce tension, and regain a sense of control in stressful situations.

When you feel anxious about going outside, you can practice deep breathing by taking slow, deep breaths in and out. Focusing on your breath can help calm your mind and body. Mindfulness involves being fully present in the moment and paying attention to your surroundings without judgment. Engaging in these relaxation techniques regularly can help you feel more at ease when facing agoraphobic situations.

Support for Agoraphobia

Having support from people who understand your experience with agoraphobia can make a big difference in your journey toward recovery. This can include:

Remember, seeking support is a sign of strength and an important step toward healing. Whether through friends, family, or support groups, having a network of understanding individuals can provide the encouragement and inspiration needed on the journey to overcome agoraphobia.

Hope for Agoraphobia Recovery

Recovering from agoraphobia is a hopeful journey. Without treatment, remission rates are low, but you can make significant progress with determination, professional help, and support from loved ones. It may take time, but setting achievable goals and celebrating small victories can boost your confidence and help you stay motivated. 

Seeking Help for Agoraphobia

If the symptoms of agoraphobia start to affect your daily life, it’s important to reach out to get professional help. Cynthia Mobley, a Licensed Independent and Certified Clinical Trauma Professional Clinical Social Worker (LICSW, CCTP) with Grow Therapy, gives some insight into the importance of getting help. “Getting help for agoraphobia is important to help the sufferer enjoy a fulfilled life and avoid social isolation and decreased health/mental health. Most therapists will be able to offer suggestions and coping skills. It may be most helpful to seek a therapist who has experience with Cognitive Behavioral Therapy or trauma work.”

Resources for Agoraphobia Treatment and Support

If you’re dealing with agoraphobia, there are many resources to help you. At Grow Therapy, we can connect you with expert therapists who specialize in anxiety disorders. 

You can also find support through websites, forums, and support groups that focus specifically on agoraphobia. These communities can provide a sense of belonging and offer valuable advice from people who have faced and conquered similar challenges. Remember, you’re not alone in this journey, and resources are available to support you every step of the way.

Takeaways

You don’t have to face agoraphobia alone. By using the right tools and seeking support, you can effectively manage agoraphobia and regain control of your life.

If you or someone you know is struggling, reaching out for professional help is important. Grow Therapy is a trusted platform connecting people with qualified therapists specializing in treating agoraphobia. Our resources can guide you in finding the right therapist to navigate and overcome agoraphobia. With our helpful search tool, you can easily find mental healthcare professionals matching your needs. Remember, you have options; seeking therapy is a positive first step.

Frequently Asked Questions

About the author
therapist sean abraham Sean Abraham, LCSW

Sean Abraham is a licensed clinical social worker who works with those who have struggled with substance use, depression, anxiety, loss, communication problems, student life, as well as other mental health concerns.

This article is not meant to be a replacement for medical advice. We recommend speaking with a therapist for personalized information about your mental health. If you don’t currently have a therapist, we can connect you with one who can offer support and address any questions or concerns. If you or your child is experiencing a medical emergency, is considering harming themselves or others, or is otherwise in imminent danger, you should dial 9-1-1 and/or go to the nearest emergency room.

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