Shutting Out the World

More than 3,500,000 Americans suffer from agoraphobia. For some, fear of the world beyond their houses keeps them shut in and alone. But with help, they can come out.

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One in 20 Americans suffers from a crippling anxiety of being in public spaces. They worry that they will have a panic attack with no way to get help. The term comes from the Greek word for the marketplace, agora. To people who suffer from it, the condition keeps them from driving in cars, going to the shopping malls and grocery stores, and, in the most extreme cases, from leaving their homes.

If you, or someone you love, has ever avoided going out in public for fear they would have a panic attack, read on. There are concrete signs and effective treatments for this debilitating condition.

What Are the Symptoms of Agoraphobia?

  • Severe anxiety or panic attacks
  • Fear of being alone
  • Fear of losing control in public
  • Becoming housebound
  • Being overly dependent on other people in your life
  • Physical symptoms such as abdominal and chest pain, dizziness, nausea, sweating

What Puts You at Risk?

The most significant risk factor is recurrent unexpected panic attacks. People with a family history of anxiety or mood disorders and people going through life transitions (good or bad) are also at greater risk, and women are more likely to suffer from agoraphobia than men; in fact, they are diagnosed 4 times more often.

Most people are not born with agoraphobia. It develops over time, often beginning in the mid-20s and peaking in middle age.

What Is Happening?

Sensing a threat, our bodies secrete hormones that tell our system to be on alert. Our hearts race, our lungs inflate to suck in more air, which causes us to hyperventilate; we sweat and feel anxious. For people with panic disorder, this sequence of events can happen often and with very little stimulation. Soon the fear of a panic attack becomes its own phobia that keeps people from living their lives as they normally would.