What Is Agoraphobia? How Do You Know If You Have It & What Causes It?

Photo: getty
woman inside watering her house plants

Agoraphobia (from the Greek phobia, "fear," and agora, which means “the place of assembly” or “the marketplace”) is described as an anxiety disorder in which the individual feels anxious or frightened in situations where they feel the environment to be unsafe and from which they cannot escape.

These feelings can be extreme and debilitating or relatively mild. These situations can include places like shopping centers, open spaces, or any location outside of their own home.

People with severe agoraphobia will do anything they can to avoid leaving their home or, in extreme cases, their own room.

In more mild cases, the person might avoid specific places but be fine in many others. Or, they will go places with a trusted person but not alone. 

RELATED: 4 Signs Your Panic Attacks Aren't Just Standard Anxiety — They're Symptoms Of Agoraphobia

Do you have agoraphobia?

You may have experienced a very mild form of agoraphobic discomfort when you went to a party where you didn’t know anyone, or even as the “new kid” at school. These mild situations resolve quickly with no lasting effect.

The current pandemic is causing many of us to stay in and limit our exposure to other people, stores, restaurants, and the like.

The important difference is that you did those things comfortably before there was an external reason to stop, and you fully intend to return to doing them when you're told it's safe.

The DSM-5, the official list of all physical and mental conditions that doctors and therapists use to diagnose people and to determine treatment, describes agoraphobia as a "phobia" along with social phobia and other phobias.

Agoraphobia and social phobia can go hand-in-hand, making an individual even more uncomfortable.

RELATED: Socially Withdrawn And Never Leaving The House — Why More Than Half A Million Reclusive People In Japan Are 'Hikikomori'

So, what causes agoraphobia?

It appears to stem from a combination of genetic and environmental factors. In other words, the tendency often runs in families and it can be triggered in specific individuals within the family by traumatic events.

Common triggers seem to be the death of a parent or being attacked, but any traumatic event can trigger agoraphobia.

In addition, it most often develops in younger adulthood, with the 20s and 30s being the most common age range. It is rarely seen in children, even those who are shy and hang back in new situations, and almost never develops in older people without dementia.

People with agoraphobia usually know they have it, even if they don’t know the name of it.

They generally avoid going out, either at all or to specific kinds of places. They might struggle with going to work, they might feel terrified at the idea of leaving the house at all. This goes beyond "not liking" certain places.

For instance, I don’t drink alcohol, so I don’t go to bars, but I have no fear of going into one. It goes beyond being shy, and those with agoraphobia generally know this.

There is hope for people with agoraphobia.

While it's true that it almost never resolves without treatment, it can be successfully treated much of the time.

Subscribe to our newsletter.

Join now for YourTango's trending articles, top expert advice and personal horoscopes delivered straight to your inbox each morning.

One popular approach is Cognitive Behavioral Therapy or CBT. This approach can take some time, but aims to slowly desensitize you to the things you fear.

With a good therapist and supportive family, friends, or helpers, CBT can be a very successful method.

Another approach is hypnotherapy. Using hypnosis, a state of deep relaxation in which you're in better contact with your unconscious mind, you're able to change the unconscious mind’s reaction to the thing you fear.

In this way, individuals can often make more rapid progress.

Can hypnotherapy and CBT work together to help someone overcome agoraphobia? Yes, absolutely! Working with a therapist who is trained in both modalities means you can have the best of both worlds.

So remember, if agoraphobia is limiting your life or the life of someone you love, there is help available. It can get better.

RELATED: What It’s Like Being A Mom Who Never Leaves The House

Nancie Barwick is a clinical hypnotherapist, author, speaker, and medical intuitive. For more information on her services, visit her website.