Cleithrophobia: the Fear of Being Trapped

Caucasian businessman trapped in hedge maze
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Cleithrophobia, the fear of being trapped, is often confused with claustrophobia, 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. However, much other unusual but not unheard of events might also trigger cleithrophobia, including being inadvertently locked in a bathroom or other small room.

Cleithrophobia vs. Claustrophobia

Claustrophobia may occur at any time. Someone with claustrophobia 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. People with cleithrophobia are often fully comfortable entering small areas that they are free to leave at will. The specific focus of this phobia is being trapped, locked in, or otherwise unable to leave.

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 the sufferer begins to panic long before the actual event occurs. Cleithrophobia may mirror claustrophobia if the person sees 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, it is important that an exact diagnosis is made only by a trained mental health professional.

Common Triggers for Cleithrophobia

Everyone is different, and no two people have the exact same phobia triggers. In general, however, cleithrophobia is triggered by a lack of escape. Rides that utilize shoulder harnesses or other tight-fitting restraints, locked rooms, and MRI chambers are particularly common triggers.

Symptoms of Cleithrophobia

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 With Cleithrophobia

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.

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.

Although cleithrophobia is never fun, it typically responds well to a variety of treatment methods.

With hard work, there is no reason for the fear of being trapped to take over your life.


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