SPACE-D OUT What is agoraphobia and what causes fear of open or public places? Symptoms, cures and celebrity sufferers.
WHILE going out in public is a daily necessity for many, it’s not easy for everyone.
Agoraphobia is one of the most common fear-related illnesses, and anxiety support organisation No More Panic has estimated that it affects 1.5 million people in Britain.
So what are the symptoms of agoraphobia and is there a cure?
What is a phobia?
A phobia is described by the NHS as an overwhelming and debilitating fear of an object, place, situation, feeling or animal.
They are more pronounced than fears and tend to develop when a person has an exaggerated or unrealistic sense of danger regarding a situation or object.
If a phobia becomes very severe, the person suffering may organise their life around avoiding the aspect that’s causing distress.
Symptoms of phobias
Typical symptoms associated with phobias can include:
- Dizziness, trembling and increased heart rate
- A sense of unreality
- Fear of dying
- Preoccupation with the fear object
What is agoraphobia?
The Oxford English Dictionary describes agoraphobia as an “extreme or irrational fear of open or public places”.
The term is easily confused with acrophobia, which is an extreme fear of heights.
Doctors coined the term in the late 19th century, merging the Greek words for assembly and phobia.
It manifests in different forms, with different patients complaining of fears of open spaces, public transport, packed shopping centres or being outside home in general.
This can lead to agrophobics avoiding leaving the house for long periods of time and trying to bypass areas that might be busy.
What are the symptoms of agoraphobia?
Cognitive reactions include suffering panic attacks, trembling or feelings of dread.
The NHS has also outlined the different physical symptoms of agoraphobia, which include…
- rapid heartbeat
- rapid breathing (hyperventilating)
- feeling hot and sweaty
- feeling sick
- chest pain
- difficulty swallowing (dysphagia)
- ringing in the ears (tinnitus)
- feeling faint
What causes agoraphobia?
Research on agoraphobia is still in its infancy and the exact cause of the condition is unknown.
Scientists have come up with a number of different theories on why this fear arises, including…
Substance induced: Drugs that trigger anxiety can contribute towards agoraphobia. This includes alcohol misuse, tobacco addiction and chronic use of tranquilisers.
Spatial theory: Some researchers have noticed that there are more cases of agoraphobia in busy cities. Urbanised areas that are packed with cars and people are more likely to induce the panicky symptoms.
Evolutionary psychology: Theorists have debated whether humans have adapted to instinctively try to find shelter when they’re in open spaces.
Is there a cure for agoraphobia?
Just like treating other phobias, curing fear often isn’t easy.
Cognitive behaviour therapy can be used to help sufferers change their unproductive thought patterns.
This allows them to distinguish that their intense fear is in their imagination.
Other treatment that is taken on by agoraphobic patients includes behaviour therapy, counselling and hypnosis.
In some cases, anti-anxiety medication can be prescribed to help relieve the stressful symptoms.
What celebrities have agoraphobia?
British comic Miranda Hart has openly spoken out about her battle with agoraphobia and anxiety as a young woman.
In an interview with the Guardian, she revealed that the condition had pushed her to go and live back with her parents when she was in her 20s.
Home Alone child star Macaulay Culkin has also self-diagnosed himself with the illness.
He told CNN: “It wasn’t like I went to a therapist and he said it. It’s just I realized – I started going outside, and it felt like the buildings were going to eat me.
“I didn’t even realize I wasn’t leaving the house a lot. I was just kind of, you know, there was always photographers in the bushes and things like that, and there was a lot of things out there that were trying to consume me.”
They’re not the first celebrities to suffer the effects of common phobias.
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