Agoraphobia is a psychological disorder you’ve probably heard of, even if you don’t know it by it's proper name. Someone who’s agoraphobic has a fear of the outdoors, crowds, or wide open spaces. This might seem silly or illogical, but in reality it's one of the more common phobias. About 1.8 million adults in the United States have agoraphobia, and that number shows no signs of shrinking.
But what exactly is agoraphobia? Fear of wide open spaces dates all the way back to before Ancient Greece, where the condition originally got its name. While it varies a lot from person to person, it mostly centers around panic attacks that happen when a person is outside. Over time, these panic attacks can increase in frequency and severity, and, in extreme cases, prevent a person from even leaving the house.
If it sounds awful that's because it is. What happens in the body and brain of someone with agoraphobia is both frightening and fascinating, and the repercussions can be severe.
It Can Start Without Warning
Most people would think a major phobia starts with some traumatic event or slow conditioning in childhood. In reality, agoraphobia doesn’t usually happen this way. It tends to start in your teens or twenties, and it can come about with seemingly no warning. One day you’re walking down the street, when suddenly you feel panicked. The panicking leads to a downward spiral and a pattern of more panicking. This continues and can get worse over time, and all it takes is one, small, anxious thought to begin the chain reaction. If you asked most agoraphobes when it all began to go south for them, many probably wouldn’t be able to point to a single event, though occasionally it can be linked to previous heart attacks or sudden onset health issues.
It Can Literally Feel Like You’re Dying
You might be wondering how it feels physically when you get a bout of agoraphobia. Well, have you ever been close to dying? Because it kind of feels like you’re dying. Your heart starts to race, you feel physical pain in your chest, you feel lightheaded, and you can’t seem to breathe. You'll sweat, shake, feel unable to move, and you may throw up just from the sheer fear and helplessness you're feeling. Some people faint or slip into a catatonic state when it hits hard. You may even be afraid you really are dying. It may be a psychological condition, but make no mistake, you will feel physical effects.
Because of this, some people - before they’re familiar with it - may think they’re having a heart attack.
Your Brain Will Respond as If You’re Being Chased
As an agoraphobic attack sets in, you may start out feeling nervous with no idea why. All you will feel is that something is wrong. Then all of a sudden that little bit of nervousness is screaming at you to run. Now. Run or something terrible is going to happen!
This sense of impending doom is your brain trying to save you from fear, even though it has no direction for that fear to go. In short, you’ll feel your fight or flight instinct kick into overdrive. The problem with this is, as it starts happening, the whole world is what the threat is. How do you run from or fight the entirety of existence?
You’ll Crave Safety Like a Drug
You might think of agoraphobia as a condition where you only worry about going outside, but that’s not exactly true. Instead, you worry about pretty much everything: where you have to go next, what you have to say to people, answering the door, sticking to a schedule. Damn near everything feels completely overwhelming, even if it’s something as simple as going out to get the mail.
Thus, your biggest concern becomes safety. In fact, you’ll want to create a perfect little safe environment, and that’s likely to be your house or some other safe zone where you feel free from the impact of a panic attack. This safety is going to feel amazing. It’s going to be addictive and it’s going to make you feel that, whenever you’re not in this safe area you’ve created, that something is deeply wrong. This craving for safety is often what leads to feeling unable to even leave the house, even if you need to get food or toilet paper, pay your bills, or see friends and loved ones.