Often wrongly described as a ‘fear of open spaces’, agoraphobia is actually a much more complex anxiety disorder. So what is it? And what should you do if you think you have it?
What is agoraphobia?
Agoraphobia is a fear of ending up in a bad situation you can’t easily escape from. Usually agoraphobics have places they feel are ‘safe’ (their room, or home) and places they feel are ‘unsafe’ (public transport, cinemas and crowds).
What causes agoraphobia?
Agoraphobia is often caused by panic attacks (or the fear of having a panic attack), resulting in terrifying anxiety symptoms when sufferers go to ‘unsafe’ places. People with agoraphobia often avoid situations that make them nervous. In extreme cases, this can spiral until agoraphobics never leave their house.
Ryan, 22, describes it as ‘fighting a losing battle’. “Trying to leave the house was exhausting. I would only leave when I had to, and then I’d have consistent panic attacks. It was unbearable,” he says. “I stopped seeing my friends as I couldn’t even cross the road to go to the local shop.”
How do I know if I have agoraphobia?
Anxiety UK has a self-diagnosis test here – but, generally, you may be suffering from agoraphobia if fear makes you avoid the following situations:
- Being in crowds or standing in long lines
- Going outside of your home
- Being stuck in either confined spaces like tunnels, or wide open spaces like large fields
The best way to find out is to visit your GP. However, if you struggle to leave the house, this may not be possible. If this is the case, ring your local surgery and ask for a telephone consultation. If you get nervous talking to people, try writing down what you’ve been feeling and then you can just read it out.
How do I recover from agoraphobia?
Recognising you need help is the most important step, followed by talking things through with your doctor. They may give you some tips on how to deal with panic attacks, offer some online self-help counselling, or in more extreme cases prescribe antidepressants and a course of CBT.
Ryan found face-to-face counselling the most helpful. “About halfway through my course I noticed an instantaneous change in myself,” he says. “In one session, my counsellor encouraged me to induce a panic attack so I could face my fear of them, as being scared of them makes them worse. She had me sit and close my eyes until the feelings went away. Ever since that day the fear has dramatically reduced.”
How does agoraphobia affect my love life?
It’s natural to worry about how your agoraphobia might affect your relationships.
If you’re single, you may find it hard to meet new people as you’re perhaps not mingling as much as others. Read our article about being single with a mental health problem for more advice.
If you’re in a relationship, there’s a danger you may rely on your boyfriend or girlfriend as almost a ‘carer’, which can put a lot of pressure on them. Or they may feel frustrated that there are some places you don’t like going to. We have articles on both managing your anxiety and your relationship and going out with someone with anxiety, which you may find helpful.
Agoraphobia is ruining my exams
If you don’t like situations where you can’t leave, being shoved in an exam hall just adds to an already stressful experience.
We know it’s embarrassing, but you should try and let your school know what’s going on. They can give you all sorts of special considerations, from giving you an exit card so you can leave whenever you’d like, to organising a special room for you to take your tests in.
Try chatting to a teacher or professor you feel you can trust. You can also ask your GP to write a letter to your college or university explaining your condition.
Will I always have agoraphobia?
If you’ve had agoraphobia blight your life, it’s natural to worry it will come back. But if you’re aware of your triggers and of the help that will always be available to you, you should be able to keep your new calm self in control.
“I still have good days and bad days,” says Ryan. “I’m not sure it will ever disappear completely, but nowadays I wake up ready and willing to face the world. When I think of how I used to feel in the mornings it all seems like a bad dream… one that I’m so glad I managed to wake up from.”
Updated on 29-Sep-2015
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