Derived from the Greek for "fear of the marketplace", agoraphobia is more than simply a terror of open spaces. It can manifest itself in many ways: a fear of being alone, going out, crowds and public places, the loss of a safe environment. Research conducted by the Phobic Society suggests that agoraphobia is the most common of all phobias, with many cases going unreported due to fear of stigma or self-misdiagnosis. "It isn't really a mental illness, more of a psychological problem," says Nicky Lidbetter, assistant director of the Phobia Society. "The difference being that a person with a phobia knows that their actions are irrational."

Most studies suggest two thirds of agoraphobics are women, with the age of onset usually between 18 and 35, but some psychologists believe that perhaps only one man in 20 reports symptoms. In many cases symptoms are precipitated by a major traumatic incident: a death in the family, a continuing work problem or an incident in a shop or public place. The incident triggers a panic attack which becomes associated with the condition in which it occurs. "And what strengthens the condition is the individual's subsequent avoidance or anticipation of the circumstances recurring," says consultant clinical psychologist Jon Fraise. In severe cases agoraphobia is classified as a disability.

Cognitive Behaviour Therapy, individually or in group sessions, is successfully used by psychologists to treat the condition, along with considered use of medication. Use of tranquillisers is now widely seen as problematic in anything other than the short term. "The majority of individuals that commit to a therapeutic regime do their homework outside of sessions, and having supportive families can make significant progress with the condition," says Fraise.

Contact the Phobic Society on 0161 881 1937