What Is Claustrophobia?

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What Is Claustrophobia?

Claustrophobia is defined as a fear 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 in elevators, on amusement park rides that use secure restraints (such as roller coasters), public restrooms, or even revolving doors. Magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) chambers and other medical testing can also be difficult or impossible if you have claustrophobia.

Symptoms

If you're claustrophobic, you may experience mild anxiety in a confined space or even severe panic attacks, and the symptoms may worsen the longer you stay where you are. You might cry, yell, and attempt to get out of the situation by any means possible.

While not everyone reacts to claustrophobia in the same way, symptoms can include:

  • An uncontrollable urge to urinate
  • Chest pain
  • Chills or feeling hot
  • Choking feeling
  • Confusion
  • Difficulty breathing
  • Dry mouth
  • Feeling faint or dizzy
  • Feeling like the walls are closing in
  • Headache
  • Heart palpitations
  • Nausea
  • Ringing in your ears
  • Sweating
  • Shaking

Eventually, you may begin to dread activities that could cause you to feel closed in. In addition, severe claustrophobia can lead to fears of fainting, losing control, or even dying. 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.

While these moments may seem fleeting, repeated panic attacks and feelings of dread and anxiety can cause persistently elevated stress, which can be harmful to the body.

Diagnosis

Knowing you have a fear of enclosed spaces may seem like enough to formalize a diagnosis of claustrophobia, but like other phobias, there are specific diagnostic criteria that must be met. If your symptoms interfere with your life and cause significant distress, it is important to talk to your doctor.

Anxiety conditions such as specific phobias tend to grow worse over time, so earlier interventions can help you manage your symptoms before they take a serious toll on your life.

Claustrophobia is not considered a distinct condition in the "Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders" (DSM-5), the tool that doctors and mental health professionals use to diagnose mental health conditions. If your symptoms meet the following criteria, however, you may be diagnosed with a specific phobia:

  • Your fear of tight spaces hinders your ability to engage in routine activities.
  • You make a special effort to avoid situations involving enclosed spaces, like taking the stairs instead of riding in an elevator.
  • Anxiety grows in anticipation of times when you may be in such a situation.

Your symptoms must not be due to another condition and must be present for six months or longer. A mental health professional can evaluate you and determine if your symptoms are the result of a phobia, panic disorder, or another issue. A similar specific phobia known as cleithrophobia (a fear of being confined or trapped) is sometimes mistaken for claustrophobia.

Causes

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.

Other underlying fears, such as a fear of injury, fear of losing control, or fear of death, may also play a role in the onset of claustrophobia.

Researchers from Emory University concluded that people who falsely perceive the distance beyond their arm's reach are more likely to experience claustrophobic fear. Either way, it appears that a history of being nervous in enclosed spaces may eventually lead to a more serious case of claustrophobia.

Impact of Claustrophobia

Being claustrophobic can severely limit your life, causing you to miss out on things you would otherwise enjoy and even place undue stress on your health. For example, claustrophobia can be a challenge when it comes to travel.

  • 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, perhaps leaving you feeling trapped.
  • Driving can feel confining but gives you the ability to stop for stretch breaks whenever you like.

An anticipated vacation can turn negative once you find yourself in one of these situations, or these concerns may prevent you from even booking a trip in the first place. Medically, claustrophobia can be dangerous because it could cause you to avoid having necessary MRI tests or other important medical procedures.

Treatment

Treatment for claustrophobia depends on the person and severity of symptoms. There are various treatments available.

Medication

Your doctor or therapist may prescribe anti-anxiety medications or antidepressants to help manage your symptoms. Low-dose anti-anxiety medication may be an option for upcoming travel if you are traveling by airplane, cruise ship, or other means of travel that may be a usual cause of claustrophobia for you.

Be sure to pay close attention to dosage and medication instructions, as you may need to start taking the medication several days before you travel, or follow other procedures such as taking the drug with a meal or avoiding alcohol.

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.

Behavioral Techniques

Systematic desensitization, counter-conditioning, modeling, 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.

Coping

While avoiding enclosed spaces is one way to avoid experiencing symptoms of fear and panic, avoidance coping also tends to make fear and anxiety worse. Finding ways to reduce panic and fear when you do encounter a situation that triggers feelings of claustrophobia can be helpful. You might try:

  • Deep breathing
  • Imagining a calming scene
  • Using distraction to keep your mind off the fear
  • Reminding yourself that you are safe
  • Practicing meditation to help calm your mind and body

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.

A Word From Verywell

Although estimates vary, some have suggested that as much as 12.5% of people experience 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. With help, you can work toward freeing yourself of this fear and enjoying life that much more.

If you or a loved one are struggling with a phobia, contact the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA) National Helpline at 1-800-662-4357 for information on support and treatment facilities in your area.

For more mental health resources, see our National Helpline Database.

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