A young person wearing a black top is sitting inside talking to someone we can see from behind. They are talking about how to get support for agraphobia

Often wrongly described as a ‘fear of open spaces’, this complex anxiety disorder is actually much more than that. It can make it hard to leave the house or to be around crowds and other people. So what is agoraphobia? And what should you do if you think you have it? The Mix explains.

What is agoraphobia?

Agoraphobia is a type of anxiety disorder which is experienced as a fear of ending up in a 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). Many people who are diagnosed with agoraphobia report that it gets hard to leave the house at all as they fear they will have a panic attack if they do. It can make daily life impossible.

Symptoms of agoraphobia

People with agoraphobia experience terrifying anxiety symptoms when they go to ‘unsafe’ places. This can include shortness of breath, sweating, racing thoughts and dizziness. The feeling makes them avoid situations that make them nervous. In extreme cases, this can spiral until agoraphobics never leave their home for fear of having a panic attack. To people without it, it may seem like an irrational fear, but to someone with agoraphobia the fear and physical symptoms are very real.

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.”

Read more about the symptoms of anxiety and panic attacks.

What causes agoraphobia?

Agoraphobia can develop from panic attacks or panic disorder. It’s thought that panic attacks become associated with certain places or spaces and this develops into a phobia, which means the person then avoids those spaces altogether.

How do I know if I have agoraphobia?

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 speak to your GP. 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 to help with panic attacks, offer some online self-help counselling, or prescribe antidepressants and a course of cognitive behaviour therapy.

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.”

See our article on grounding techniques for anxiety.

Find out more about cognitive behavioural therapy (CBT).

How does agoraphobia affect my love life?

It’s natural to worry about how 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 risk you may rely on your partner 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 asked to sit 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.

See our article on how to talk about your mental health for some tips to help you get started.

Is agoraphobia curable, or will it come back?

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.”

AnxietyUK run helplines, email support, live chats and therapy services for people with anxiety disorders. 03444 775 774.

Next Steps

  • AnxietyUK run helplines, email support, live chats and therapy services for people with anxiety disorders. 08444 775 774
  • Chat about this subject on our Discussion Boards.

By Holly Turner

Updated on 10-Aug-2023