Not to be confused with agraphobia, agoraphobia is a condition where the sufferer becomes anxious in environments that are unfamiliar or where he or she perceives that they have little control. Triggers for this anxiety may include wide open spaces, crowds (social anxiety), or traveling (even short distances). Agoraphobia is often, but not always, compounded by a fear of social embarrassment, as the agoraphobic fears the onset of a panic attack and appearing distraught in public. This is also sometimes called ‘social agoraphobia’ which may be a type of social anxiety disorder also sometimes called “social phobia”.
Not all agoraphobia is social in nature, however. Some agoraphobics have a fear of open spaces. Agoraphobia is also a defined as “a fear, sometimes terrifying, by those who have experienced one or more panic attacks”. In these cases, the sufferer is fearful of a particular place because they have experienced a panic attack at the same location in a previous time. Fearing the onset of another panic attack, the sufferer is fearful or even avoids the location. Some refuse to leave their home even in medical emergencies because the fear of being outside of their comfort area is too great.
The sufferer can sometimes go to great lengths to avoid the locations where they have experienced the onset of a panic attack. Agoraphobia, as described in this manner, is actually a symptom professionals check for when making a diagnosis of panic disorder. Other syndromes like obsessive compulsive disorder or post traumatic stress disorder can also cause agoraphobia, basically any irrational fear that keeps one from going outside can cause the syndrome.
It is not uncommon for agoraphobics to also suffer from temporary separation anxiety disorder when certain other individuals of the household depart from the residence temporarily, such as a parent or spouse, or when the agoraphobic is left home alone. Such temporary conditions can result in an increase in anxiety or a panic attack.
Another common associative disorder of agoraphobia is necrophobia, the fear of death. The anxiety level of agoraphobics often increases when dwelling upon the idea of eventually dying, which they consciously or unconsciously associate with being the ultimate separation from their mortal emotional comfort and safety zones and loved ones, even for those who may otherwise spiritually believe in some form of divine afterlife existence.
Agoraphobia occurs about twice as commonly among women as it does in men. The gender difference may be attributable to several factors: social-cultural traditions that encourage, or permit, the greater expression of avoidant coping strategies by women (including dependent and helpless behaviors); women perhaps being more likely to seek help and therefore be diagnosed; men being more likely to abuse alcohol in reaction to anxiety and be diagnosed as an alcoholic. Research has not yet produced a single clear explanation for the gender difference in agoraphobia.
Causes and contributing factors
Although the exact causes of agoraphobia are currently unknown, some clinicians who have treated or attempted to treat agoraphobia offer plausible hypotheses. The condition has been linked to the presence of other anxiety disorders, a stressful environment or substance abuse. Chronic use of tranquilizers and sleeping pills such as benzodiazepines has been linked to onset of agoraphobia. In 10 patients who had developed agoraphobia during benzodiazepine dependence, symptoms abated within the first year of assisted withdrawal.
Research has uncovered a linkage between agoraphobia and difficulties with spatial orientation. Individuals without agoraphobia are able to maintain balance by combining information from their vestibular system, their visual system and their proprioceptive sense. A disproportionate number of agoraphobics have weak vestibular function and consequently rely more on visual or tactile signals. They may become disoriented when visual cues are sparse (as in wide open spaces) or overwhelming (as in crowds). Likewise, they may be confused by sloping or irregular surfaces. In a virtual reality study, agoraphobics showed impaired processing of changing audiovisual data in comparison with healthy subjects.