Cleithrophobia: The Fear of Being Trapped

Specific Phobia

Caucasian businessman trapped in hedge maze
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Cleithrophobia, the fear of being trapped, is often confused with claustrophobia, which is the fear of enclosed spaces. Cleithrophobia is at the heart of many winter-related fears due to the potential risk of being trapped underneath a snow drift or thin ice. Many other events might trigger cleithrophobia, including being inadvertently locked in a bathroom or other small room.

The root word for this phobia is from the Greek cleithro, which means to shut or close.

Cleithrophobia vs. Claustrophobia

Claustrophobia may occur at any time. If you have claustrophobia, you might fully intend to enter a small space, such as a magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) chamber or a motion simulator, yet have a panic attack before or during the experience. The specific focus of the phobia itself is the small space.

Cleithrophobia, however, is triggered by actual confinement in a small space. If you have cleithrophobia, you are often fully comfortable entering small areas that you are free to leave at will. The specific focus of this phobia is being trapped, locked in, or otherwise unable to leave. Traumatic events that lead to this phobia include things such as getting trapped in a small tunnel or deep hole, or being locked in a small space such as a closet, abandoned refrigerator, or the trunk of a car.

The difference between the two phobias is subtle but important. However, it can be nearly impossible to distinguish between them. Both phobias often cause anticipatory anxiety, in which you begin to panic long before the actual event occurs. Cleithrophobia may mirror claustrophobia if you see even a slight risk of becoming trapped in the space.

Likewise, claustrophobia often mirrors cleithrophobia in that many people with claustrophobia may feel trapped or locked in, even if they are actually free to leave. The two phobias may even exist simultaneously. For these reasons, a trained mental health professional is needed to make the exact diagnosis. The treatment of the two conditions is similar.

Common Triggers for Cleithrophobia

In general, cleithrophobia is triggered by a lack of escape. Examples of common triggers include amusement park rides that utilize shoulder harnesses or other tight-fitting restraints, locked rooms, and MRI chambers.

Symptoms

The symptoms of cleithrophobia are similar to those of other specific phobias. If you have this fear, you might experience a panic attack when you feel trapped. Crying, screaming, physically lashing out, freezing up, and attempting to run away are very common. If you are unable to leave the situation, you might start sweating profusely, feel your pulse rate begin to rise, and develop symptoms of physical illness. You will likely be unable to think of anything other than the need to escape.

Coping and Treatment

If your symptoms are severe or life-limiting, it is always best to seek advice from a mental health professional.

Systematic desensitization and other cognitive-behavioral techniques work very well with phobias, but should not be tried without the assistance of a professional. Those with milder symptoms, however, sometimes find relief from a variety of self-help techniques. Leaving an escape route, such as cracking the bathroom door or removing the locks from your bedroom, can help you feel calmer in many situations, but this is not always possible or practical. While your family may understand, you may not be able to avoid locked doors in public accommodations.

If you begin to panic, try using purposeful breathing or guided visualization to calm your anxiety.

If you have a supportive friend or relative nearby, ask that person to speak calmly with you about light topics. Some people find that the Stop! Technique helps curb anxiety, while others find that it does not work in the middle of a panic attack. This technique is a form of cognitive-behavioral therapy aimed at stopping racing thoughts or obsessive worrying. When thoughts of the fear arise, you yell Stop. At first, you may do so out loud but eventually you progress to doing so silently.

A Word From Verywell

You should seek help if this phobia is having an impact on employment, relationships, or the ability to enjoy a variety of social activities. Although cleithrophobia is unpleasant, it typically responds well to a variety of treatment methods. With hard work, you may get relief from this fear and be able to enjoy more activities in your life without restriction.

View Article Sources
  • American Psychiatric Association (APA). Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders. 5th ed. Washington, DC: 2013.