Agoraphobia and Panic Attacks
Agoraphobia is the word used to describe anyone who has an intense, and
“irrational” fear of certain places or situations, and is derived from the Greek words “fear” and
People suffering from agoraphobia thus have the fear of entering shops, leaving home, being
in crowds or public places (for instance going to the cinema), travelling alone on buses, trains or
Strongly linked to panic attacks (or panic disorder), agoraphobia can strike at any time for
reasons which have yet to be properly explained by doctors, and scientists. It has been estimated that 10 million
people in Britain suffer from some form of phobia, and that around 5 million of them have agoraphobia. In the
United States, agoraphobia is said to be the most common phobia experienced by its citizens, with over 6 million
adults affected. In both countries, women are said to be affected twice as much as men.
It is the general consensus in the medical profession across the world that people suffering
from agoraphobia either have agoraphobia and panic attacks (the agoraphobia being a direct result of having a panic
attack), or just have agoraphobia on its own. Research has shown that around half of those with agoraphobia have no
prior experience of panic attacks. In these cases, the agoraphobia might have been brought on by a fear of crime or
terrorism, sudden illness or accident.
Having said that, studies have also revealed that people who have not had previous
panic attacks, but do have agoraphobia, do have
a fear that they may experience a panic attack at sometime. People, who initially experience panic attacks, do
so from a fear that they may suddenly stop breathing, or that their heart will start racing and bring on a heart
attack. Generally, a panic attack is caused when someone starts to worry about being in an environment, or
situation that will become embarrassing, dangerous or threatening to them, and where getting help, or escaping
There are three main categories of symptoms to agoraphobia and panic attacks brought on by a
heightened state of anxiety, and these are physical, psychological, and behavioral. Physical symptoms include rapid
heartbeat, rapid breathing, feeling hot/sweaty, nausea, upset stomach, chest pain, difficulty swallowing, diarrhea,
trembling, dizziness, ringing in the ears, feeling faint.
The psychological symptoms include having a fear of looking stupid or embarrassed in front of
other people, or that a panic attack will be life-threatening, or that it will be difficult to escape from a
certain place or situation. The psychological aspect also includes a fear of insanity, of people staring them,
which results in them blushing, or trembling. There are other psychological symptoms linked to agoraphobia which
are not associated with panic attacks. These are feelings of low esteem, and general feelings of depression,
anxiety, and dread.
The behavioral symptoms all stem from either of the other two, and lead to the agoraphobia
sufferer adopting depressive, or obsessive behavior, including practices of
avoidance of their “normal” activities (driving, sports, leaving the house) for fear that these activities could
lead to a panic attack.
But what brings this on? What triggers agoraphobia, and panic attacks? Well, there are many
theories. According to Gale Encyclopedia of Mental Disorder, it could be down to either genetics, innate
temperament (from birth, childhood), physiological reactions to illness (respiratory disease causing fearful
beliefs), life events (fear of separation from parents during childhood), learned behavior (avoidance of situations
following an initial fearful first experience in public – i.e. boarding a bus), or social factors related to gender
(girls with a more fragile sense of self always being told to be ‘careful’ when venturing out in
Anyone experiencing any of the symptoms described above is advised to seek medical advice,
although psychotherapy has been proven to be the best form of help rather than medication as drugs (even tea and
coffee) tends to exacerbate the problem in the long term.
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