Claustrophobia: the Fear of Enclosed Spaces

People in elevator, close up (focus on blond man)
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Claustrophobia is defined as a fear, also called a phobia, of enclosed spaces. Like any phobia, the severity of claustrophobia can vary widely from person to person. You may experience symptoms in small rooms, crawl spaces, crowds, and many other situations. Some people who are claustrophobic are uncomfortable on amusement park rides such as roller coasters that use secure restraints. MRI chambers and other medical testing can also be difficult or impossible if you suffer from claustrophobia.

Symptoms of Claustrophobia

If you're claustrophobic, you may feel panicked when you're in a small space. You may sweat, shake, and/or experience heart palpitations. You may cry or yell. You might attempt to get out of the situation by any means possible. Some people with claustrophobia find it difficult to breathe. Some say that it feels like the walls are closing in on them. Other physical symptoms include:

  • Feeling faint
  • Ringing in your ears
  • Needing to go to the bathroom
  • Chills or feeling hot
  • Feeling like you're choking
  • Nausea
  • Confusion
  • Chest pain
  • Dizziness
  • Headache
  • Dry mouth

Eventually, you may begin to dread activities that could cause you to feel closed in. You might skip crowded parties or other events, avoid rides that use shoulder restraints, leave the door open when you enter small rooms, or make many other concessions to your fear.

Traveling With Claustrophobia

Claustrophobia can be a challenge when you're traveling, turning a well-deserved vacation into a nightmare. Flying gets the trip over with quickly but forces you to confine yourself to a small seat surrounded by strangers. Train travel provides large comfortable seats, and allows you to walk around, but takes a long time. Driving can feel confining but gives you the ability to stop for stretch breaks whenever you like.

Dangers of Claustrophobia

Being claustrophobic can severely limit your life, causing you to miss out on things you would otherwise enjoy. Medically, claustrophobia can be dangerous because it could cause you to avoid having necessary MRI tests. Many people discover the severity of their claustrophobia for the first time when they're undergoing MRI scans.

Causes of Claustrophobia

Researchers are not yet certain what factors may cause claustrophobia. Many speculate that it may be rooted in bad childhood experiences. Others believe that it may be a warping of an evolutionary survival mechanism. Either way, it appears that a history of being nervous in enclosed spaces may eventually lead to full-blown claustrophobia.

Treatments for Claustrophobia

There are treatments available for claustrophobia, including:

  • Psychotherapy:  Cognitive-behavioral therapy (CBT) in particular has been shown to be quite successful in treating claustrophobia. Exposure therapy is another treatment that can be effective.
  • Medication: Your doctor may also prescribe anti-anxiety medications or antidepressants to help manage your symptoms.
  • Behavioral techniques: Systematic desensitization, counter-conditioning, and flooding are often used in conjunction with cognitive methods such as the Stop! Technique. The methods work together to help change both your behaviors and your feelings of fear.
  • Alternative treatments: Some people find relief through hypnosis and other alternative forms of treatment. Others find that self-help methods such as visualization can help them through claustrophobia attacks. If you decide to try alternative methods of treatment, be sure to get the approval of your mental health professional.

What to Do If You Think You Have Claustrophobia

Claustrophobia can be debilitating if it's not treated. However, treatment is usually successful. If you're experiencing any symptoms of claustrophobia, it's important to contact a mental health professional or your family doctor as soon as possible.

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View Article Sources
  • Better Health Channel. Claustrophobia. Victoria State Government. Updated April 2016.
  • National Health Service. Claustrophobia. Crown Copyright. Updated July 6, 2016.