What Is Cleithrophobia (Fear of Being Trapped)?

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Cleithrophobia is a specific phobia involving the fear of being trapped. The root word for this phobia is from the Greek cleithro, which means to shut or close.

There are a number of events that might trigger cleithrophobia, including being locked in a bathroom or other small room. The condition can affect both children and adults and can lead to a range of disruptive and distressing symptoms.

This article discusses the symptoms, causes, and diagnosis of cleithrophobia. It also explores some of the treatments that can help and what you can do to cope with the condition.

Symptoms of Cleithrophobia

The symptoms of cleithrophobia are similar to those of other specific phobias. Common symptoms of cleithrophobia include:

  • Chest pain
  • Chills
  • Difficulty breathing
  • Dizziness
  • Fear of losing control
  • Nausea
  • Racing heartbeat
  • Shaking
  • Sweating

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 cannot 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.

Diagnosis of Cleithrophobia

A doctor or mental health professional will ask questions about your symptoms to make a diagnosis. They may also take a medical history and conduct lab tests and a physical exam to rule out other conditions.

Cleithrophobia is not recognized as a distinct condition in the "Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders" (DSM-5-TR). Instead, it would be classified as a form of specific phobia. To be diagnosed with a specific phobia:

  • The fear must create significant distress or disruption in a person's life
  • The fear must be out of proportion to the actual danger
  • The person avoids the source of the fear or endures it only with extreme distress

These symptoms must be present for at least six months and must not be caused by another mental health or medical condition.

Cleithrophobia vs. Claustrophobia

Cleithrophobia is often confused with claustrophobia or the fear of enclosed spaces. There are several significant differences between the two conditions.

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 is triggered by actual confinement in a small space. People with cleithrophobia are often entirely comfortable entering small areas they are free to leave. The specific focus of this phobia is being trapped, locked in, or otherwise unable to leave.

  • Fear of being trapped

  • Fine with small spaces if there is a way out; but may cause panic if locked in

  • May cause anticipatory anxiety

  • Fear of small spaces

  • May cause panic when entering small spaces

  • May cause anticipatory anxiety

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.

Causes of Cleithrophobia

The exact causes of cleithrophobia are not entirely clear, but a number of factors may play a role. These may include:

  • Genetics: Having family members with phobias or other anxiety disorders may increase your risk of developing a specific phobia, such as cleithrophobia.
  • Evolutionary factors: Some researchers suggest that evolutionary influences may play a role in the development of certain specific phobias.
  • Traumatic experiences: Traumatic events that lead to this phobia include getting trapped in a small tunnel or deep hole, or being locked in a small space such as a closet, abandoned refrigerator, or car trunk.

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.

Treatment for Cleithrophobia

Treatment for cleithrophobia depends on your needs and the severity of your symptoms. Options include medication, psychotherapy, and behavioral strategies.

  • Medication: Your doctor may prescribe anti-anxiety medications to help you cope with feelings of anxiety.
  • Psychotherapy: Treatments for phobias often involve using cognitive-behavioral therapy (CBT) and related approaches, including exposure therapy and systematic desensitization. Such strategies help change the negative thoughts that contribute to fear and help you become gradually accustomed to the source of your fear to lessen its intensity.

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.

Coping With Cleithrophobia

People with milder symptoms sometimes find relief from various self-help techniques. Some strategies that can help ease feelings of anxiety and fear include:

Leaving an escape route, such as cracking the bathroom door or removing the locks from rooms in your home where you might feel trapped, may help you feel calmer in certain situations. But this is not always possible or practical. You may not be able to avoid locked doors in public places.

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 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.

7 Sources
Verywell Mind uses only high-quality sources, including peer-reviewed studies, to support the facts within our articles. Read our editorial process to learn more about how we fact-check and keep our content accurate, reliable, and trustworthy.
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By Lisa Fritscher
Lisa Fritscher is a freelance writer and editor with a deep interest in phobias and other mental health topics.