Reviewed by Mary Lucas, MSCIS, MPhil, RN
Written by Our Editorial Team
Chances are you’ve heard about people who are afraid of leaving the house — or at least seen movies where it’s a central plot point. Sometimes these people are called shut-ins. But there’s actually a medical term for the fear of leaving the house alone. It’s called agoraphobia.
This condition is actually a form of anxiety that goes beyond the fear of leaving the house — and treating it is possible, though it often takes a good deal of effort and work.
Intrigued? Keep reading for more information about this anxiety condition. Plus, find out how to treat it!
Technically, agoraphobia is an anxiety disorder that’s defined by an intense fear of becoming overwhelmed or being unable to escape from a place or a situation. If you are dealing with this, it can affect your daily life and prevent you from enjoying yourself.
Because of this, people with agoraphobia may avoid unpredictable or unfamiliar situations — such as open spaces, places where there are crowds and public transportation.
The result: Many people with agoraphobia stay home or refuse to go far from where they live.
So, how common is this unfortunate anxiety disorder? It’s estimated that between one and two percent of adults in the United States have been diagnosed with it. It also has a tendency to be more common in women than men.
As for what causes it, there’s not just one thing. Generally, it’s thought to be something that can blossom out of panic disorder. Panic disorder can cause panic attacks.
From there, it’s easy to start associating these attacks with certain situations or places. In turn, this can make people want to keep their surroundings familiar as a way of avoiding panic attacks.
We’re not going to lie: This one is tricky. See, people who are agoraphobic generally avoid situations or places that provoke extreme fear and make them experience symptoms.
However, if someone who is agoraphobic does push themselves into one of these situations, they may notice physical symptoms that are similar to a panic attack. These anxiety symptoms include:
Shortness of breath
A rapid heart rate, may say it feels like they’re having a heart attack
Trembling or excessive sweating
An upset stomach or nausea
Other, non-physiological symptoms of people with agoraphobia include:
The general fear of spending time by themselves
Staying inside for prolonged periods of time
Being unusually short-tempered or agitated
Feeling helpless or that their body isn’t real
Feeling separated or detached
Developing dependency issues on other people
A general fear of losing control in a public setting
Believing the environment isn’t real
Having a fear of being unable to escape a certain place
The best person to assess these panic-like symptoms and diagnose whether or not you have agoraphobia is a mental health professional.
In their assessment, they may ask you about what stresses you out, whether there are places that scare you, if you suffer from other mental disorders, whether you have certain risk factors and more.
So, what happens if it’s determined that you have agoraphobia? It can be treated through therapy and medication. Often, a mix of both is found to be helpful.
A therapist trained in CBT can assist you in identifying thought patterns and behaviors that may be feeding your agoraphobia. Then, the therapist can help you learn skills to overcome those things.
In therapy, a therapist may have you think of a situation that overwhelms you. Then, you’ll talk out how you may be able to manage that fear.
The goal is that, eventually, you can enter those situations with the knowingness that you can handle it.
Prescription medications used to treat depression and anxiety may also be used to treat agoraphobia.
Selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors (SSRIs) are one type of these medications. They are often used to treat depression or to manage the mental and physical effects of anxiety.
How they work: they increase the level of the neurotransmitter serotonin in your brain. Serotonin is what helps to regulate your feelings.
There are a number of SSRIs used in the treatment of anxiety disorders like agoraphobia — including sertraline (the active ingredient in Zoloft®), citalopram (Celexa®), escitalopram (Lexapro®), and fluoxetine (Prozac®).
In addition to SSRIs, serotonin-norepinephrine reuptake inhibitors (SNRIs) may also be prescribed. Like SSRIs, they boost the levels of serotonin in your brain — but they also increase norepinephrine, another neurotransmitter. Venlafaxine (Effexor®) and duloxetine (Cymbalta®) are two SNRIs approved to treat anxiety disorders.
Agoraphobia is a type of anxiety disorder. It can affect people with panic disorder. As mentioned before, if specific locations (such as public space) or situations trigger panic attacks, someone with agoraphobia may start avoiding those places and may begin staying closer and closer to home.
It’s believed that between one and two percent of adults in the United States will experience agoraphobia at some point in their lives. If you’re one of those people, don’t let it affect your quality of life — there are treatment options.
Therapy, specifically cognitive behavioral therapy, can be helpful in identifying patterns that may feed into your agoraphobia. But the therapy won’t end there — a therapist will work with you to change those patterns.
Medications used to treat depression and anxiety may also be helpful.
With anxiety disorders, it’s best not to self-diagnose. Instead, meet with a mental health professional such as a psychiatrist. They will be able to listen to your symptoms and determine if you qualify for a diagnosis of agoraphobia.
From there, they can provide treatment options customized to your individual needs.