Placed in a category of its own, agoraphobia often combines aspects of both social and specific phobias. A long-running misconception about agoraphobia is that is simply “a fear of open spaces”, which seems natural since the Greek word “agora” means “gathering place”, “assembly” or “marketplace”.

Agoraphobia may entail a fear of such places, but the fear is not attached to the place itself so much as the feelings or conditions that can arise. The agoraphobic individual fears the inability to readily escape and the onset of panic, especially in a public place. The agoraphobe may be fearful of a particular place where they have had panic issues, but generally may fear some kinds of places such as enclosed vehicles, standing in line, large open spaces, classrooms, hallways, bridges and more, and agoraphobia can be very individualized. The common factor is a fear of the public onset of panic.

Panic Disorder and Agoraphobia

Agoraphobia is known to often develop out of Panic Disorder, which is the onset of panic attacks without any identifiable cause. The agoraphobe fears the onset of panic itself rather than the place, a fear that can naturally progress from having had panic attacks without a discernible cause.

(Panic Disorder diagnosis requires that panic attacks occur without identifiable cause over an extended period of time. In this way, panic disorder then provides a valid reason for the agoraphobic person to fear having a panic attack in public, becoming a self-fulfilling issue: The fear of another panic attack with no apparent cause then creates the possibility of further panic attacks.)

Because the root fear is concern for the onset of panic and public embarrassment, agoraphobia often is prevented completely by factors that allow the individual to feel safe, such as being with a “safe companion” or knowing about a ready avenue of escape, such as remaining close to an exit.

While seemingly contrary to the “fear of open spaces” definition, a fear of enclosed spaces can cause an agoraphobic reaction, since travelling in a plane or train, etc., leaves no easy avenue of escape. This kind of fear is not the same as claustrophobia or topophobia, since those (specific) phobias are linked to a fear of the place itself rather than the possible onset of panic in public.

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