Living With Agoraphobia – Why Is Modern Life Making Us Depressed

Anxiety and phobia are nothing new. Indeed, over two thousand years ago, the Greek physicians observed that there were people “who fear that which need not be feared,” while Roman writers like Seneca and Cicero described the different anxiety states in great detail. Of course, retrospective diagnosis is a tricky and controversial business, but it seems likely that both Emily Dickinson and Charles Darwin, for example, were suffering from agoraphobia decades before it was officially recognized. The world has always been a difficult and scary place, and the urge to shelter somewhere safe is as deeply ingrained as the instinct to flee predators or hunt for food. But is 21st century life making agoraphobic traits more common than ever?


The word “agoraphobia” was coined by the German psychiatrist Karl Friedrich Westphal in the 1870s. A phobia is defined as an irrational fear, while the “agora” was an open space in Ancient Greek cities, used for entertainment, athletic competitions, political speeches, and the buying and selling of goods. So the agoraphobic has a fear, or phobia, of such open spaces.

But more is involved than a simple fear of going outside, just as depression involves more than simple unhappiness. Some fear being in open spaces, but others fear being enclosed or trapped. Many agoraphobics have a specific fear of traffic signals, bridges, elevators, parking lots, or even small stores. A fear of waiting in line or using public transport is also common. No matter what they focus on, all agoraphobics dislike losing control. And whether the space is open or enclosed, whether they are trapped or free, they experience anxiety and fear and wish to return to the familiar, to close the door and feel safe and in control.

The specific symptoms also vary. The most common is obviously fear. When trapped in a situation from which they cannot escape, some will freeze, others will burst into tears. Many experience a sense of disorientation, nausea, and dizziness. The Norwegian painter Edward Munch was himself an agoraphobic, and his famous painting The Scream captures this mixture of fear and chaos: around the central figure there is a swirling disorder, with the solid and substantial seeming to melt and blur.

A distinction also needs to be made between common agoraphobia and agoraphobia combined with panic. Many agoraphobia sufferers also have a panic disorder, which reinforces their fear. During these panic attacks, the heart beats wildly and the body often grows hot, there is then a sense of dizziness, leaving the victim afraid he may faint. Once this subsides, they often find themselves drenched in sweat. For many, the experience is not only scary but humiliating.

Many agoraphobics trace the origins of their disorder to such a panic attack, often at work or in some other public place. The experience shocks and humiliates them, and they naturally fear it may happen again. If it occurs at home, they think, then at least I will be safe – everything is familiar there and the people know and care about me. Then of course the reverse can happen: someone develops agoraphobia which in turn leads to a panic attack when stuck in a traffic jam on a bridge or in a tunnel.

Modern Life and the Breakdown of Boundaries

If only one word could be used to describe the modern, globalized world, “connected” would be a reasonable choice. Globalization means connection. And this has been gathering pace ever since the invention of the telegraph and steam train.

But one of the consequences of a globalized world has been the breakdown of traditional boundaries and borders. The most obvious example is mass migration. The late 19th century Italian architect and writer Camillo Sitte even defined agoraphobia in evolutionary terms, regarding it as something based on “our natural craving for protection from the flank.”

Freud also wrote about agoraphobia, which he linked to the city and the confusion between public and private space. Certainly a hectic, modern, globalized city like London or New York can be overwhelming. And they are also scarily impersonal places, with little sense of a settled, homogenous population.

Sacred Space

The decline in religious faith, especially in the West, may also leave people more vulnerable to such fears. The Romanian novelist and scholar Mircea Eliade, for example, once wrote a book titled The Sacred and the Profane in which he argued that pre-scientific people divided space itself into the sacred and the profane. And such a way of thinking and experiencing the world does not disappear just because someone rejects organized religion. Even atheists and skeptics often feel uneasy when entering a religious building (the poet Philip Larkin, for example, himself an atheist, wrote of the “awkward reverence” he exhibited when entering an old church in the English countryside). Dudley Young, author of Origins of the Sacred, sums up the difference thus: “medieval space was remarkably closed…modern science was to abolish the invisible framework sustained by Christian theology and effectively deconsecrate both space and time.”

Obviously, as religious faith declines, people feel that the world “out there” is nothing but chaotic and meaningless space. And this fear can be found right at the start of the scientific revolution. In the 17th century, the French philosopher Pascal wrote that, looking into the night sky, “those infinite spaces frighten me.” Another good example is found in a book by C. S. Lewis, The Discarded Image, which compares the modern, scientific view of the cosmos with that held by Medieval and early modern Europeans. The Medieval universe was limited and made sense to people. The cosmos was arranged into spheres, inhabited by various supernatural beings. Everything was ordered: God was up there, the devil down there, and so on. Modern science undermined this idea of space as meaningful, bounded, and organized.

Fear and Withdrawal

Another striking feature of modern life is the amount of information to which people are now exposed. Imagine the average labourer in the middle of the 19th century. He or she would have known very little about events taking place a few hundred miles away, let alone those unfolding on the other side of the world. There would have been no Internet, no television, and no radio. Those able to read may have bought a newspaper, but these were less sensationalist: the type was small, there were no shocking, colored photographs, and news was generally reported in a calm, measured tone.

Now look at that labourer’s 21st century descendent. Any major event that happens anywhere in the world is reported within hours, sometimes even live. And it is almost impossible to escape: the news pops up on your search engine, on your cell phone, on 24 hour news channels, on the radio etc.

Unfortunately, news outlets compete for customers. And they know that human beings evolved to seek out bad news. When a member of our tribe was bitten by a snake, we needed to know where so we could avoid that patch of grass in future. When a rival tribe raided a local village, we needed to hear the details so we’d be prepared if they attacked us next. It is therefore in the interests of those who sell news to frighten and alarm people – do that and they will buy your paper or switch to your channel.

The inevitable consequence is a distorted view of the world. Several studies have shown that while many western societies are a good deal less violent than ever before, the majority of people believe they are worse. In 2011, for example, the Harvard professor Steven Pinker published a book titled The Better Angels of Our Nature: Why Violence has Declined, in which he argues just that. And, as Pinker has observed, “news is about stuff that happens. It’s not about stuff that doesn’t happen!” Run a story titled “society a bit less violent” and people will switch to something about the Ebola epidemic or mass migration.

But this suggests that the best thing to do is escape, withdraw, and avoid. And the very technologies which instill this fear also occupy and entertain those who wish to escape! It is easier than ever to isolate oneself. In Japan, this has become so common that a word has been coined to describe such people: “Hikikomori,” translated roughly as “those who pull inward.” These are mostly young men who retreat into their room and live a virtual life, immersed in online gaming, video sharing and so on. And as Virtual Reality becomes both more sophisticated and more available, this is likely to become even more common. Sadly, the more isolated and cut off people become, the more frightening and overwhelming the real world seems to be.

Obviously, no one can opt out of the 21st century. Still, being aware of these characteristics, and the impact they can have, is at least a start.

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