Harvard Mental Health Letter

Ask the doctor: What is agoraphobia?

Q. My daughter tells me her new roommate is afraid to leave a 10-block area around their apartment in New York City. She has something called agoraphobia. What is that?

A. Agoraphobia is literally the fear of open or public places. The word is derived from agora, the Greek term for "marketplace." People with agoraphobia may suffer symptoms of severe anxiety when they leave home or when they are in crowded places. At home, they anticipate being anxious. As a result, they typically try to avoid situations that trigger anxiety — which may explain why your daughter's roommate is afraid to leave a particular area that is familiar to her.

One reason that people with agoraphobia stay close to home is the fear of developing panic symptoms, such as a racing heart, difficulty breathing, sweaty palms, and shakiness. Other possible symptoms include the fear of losing control in a public place, feeling helpless or detached from others (even perceiving that one's own body is not real), and unusual agitation. These symptoms may occur in conjunction with another sort of anxiety disorder — typically panic disorder — but may also occur on their own.

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