In daily life, it is common to sit bumper to bumper in traffic, pass through the occasional revolving door, or try on clothes in a dressing room. But what if these experiences cause crippling anxiety for you? These situations involve a confined space that makes those with claustrophobia — the fear of enclosed spaces — feel entirely trapped, triggering overwhelming anxiety.
Claustrophobia is a common phobia that many struggle with. This anxiety disorder varies in severity and triggers but impacts all those who have this specific phobia. Thankfully, claustrophobia is a treatable condition and there are many treatment options to help you work through these challenges.
What Is Claustrophobia?
Claustrophobia is the intense fear of small, crowded, or confined spaces. For those with claustrophobia, being in an enclosed space causes intense feelings of anxiety and panic. These reactions are often provoked when one feels trapped with no way out.
This phobia is a situational type of anxiety disorder, according to the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, 5th Edition. A phobia is diagnosable according to the DSM-5 when fear of a situation causes immediate anxiety and significant distress that is irrational and out of proportion for the danger posed. Individuals with a phobia will avoid triggering situations to an extent that impairs normal functioning. Phobias such as claustrophobia are also persistent, lasting 6 months or more. If an individual experiences these reactions to being in confined spaces, they could be diagnosed with claustrophobia if it’s unrelated to another mental illness.
Many types of small or crowded spaces trigger deep fear in someone with claustrophobia. Talkspace therapist and anxiety management expert Bisma Anwar, LMHC, says “some examples of [triggering] situations can be riding in a crowded elevator, getting locked in a windowless room, or driving on a highway. So, if someone experiences a situation like this, they can become highly anxious.”
Claustrophobia is one of the most common fears, with close to 5% of the American population struggling with the disorder in varying degrees of severity. This phobia is more common among women than men, but it can be experienced by anyone, no matter their age, sex, or background. The typical onset age for this phobia is childhood to teenage years.
Many situations may trigger the onset of anxiety or a panic attack in someone claustrophobic. Specific triggers vary from person to person, but generally, any type of enclosed or tight space can cause an anxiety attack. Many people will go out of their way to avoid such triggers to limit their anxiety.
Spaces that may trigger claustrophobia:
- Crowded elevators
- Small cars, especially driving on a congested highway
- Subways and trains
- Airplanes, especially in turbulence
- Crowded areas
- Basements and cellars
- Small, windowless, or locked rooms
- Revolving doors
- MRI or CT scans
- Car washes
- Dressing rooms
- Public restrooms
These spaces are encountered often in everyday life, which is why claustrophobia can be such a challenge to cope with. If you think you have claustrophobia, know that help is available and the condition is treatable.
What are Symptoms of Claustrophobia?
Encountering enclosed spaces triggers many intense symptoms of anxiety for those with claustrophobia. Anxiety and panic attacks usually include accelerated heart rate, difficulty breathing, and sweating, among other symptoms. Many claustrophobia symptoms are debilitating and uncomfortable, which is why this phobia can severely decrease quality of life.
Claustrophobia symptoms include:
- Intense anxiety or panic attacks
- Accelerated heart rate
- Feeling light-headed
- Difficulty breathing
- Chest tightness
- Confusion or disorientation
To mitigate these uncomfortable claustrophobic symptoms, individuals with this specific phobia often compulsively check the exits of a room, standing near them when possible. Someone with claustrophobia will go out of their way to avoid triggering places, such as choosing to take the stairs over an elevator, even if it is many flights. When given the choice, a sufferer of claustrophobia will choose open safe spaces to avoid the onset of these intense anxiety symptoms.
What Causes Claustrophobia?
Like many mental illnesses, the causes of claustrophobia are complex with a combination of environmental and genetic factors. Fear is a natural instinct for all humans because it helps us survive and find safety, but this instinct becomes extreme for those with claustrophobia. This severe fear can be caused by a past traumatic experience such as abuse, being trapped in a small space, or experiencing bullying. These experiences increase anxiety when a person is confined, and potentially leading or exacerbating claustrophobia.
Claustrophobia can also be observed and learned from a parent or a peer. If you observe someone close to you who is afraid of enclosed spaces, you are more likely to learn this pattern and have this fear long-term. Those with a claustrophobic parent are more likely to become claustrophobic themselves.
When it comes to genetic causes, researchers connect claustrophobia to dysfunction of the amygdala, which is the brain’s center for processing fear. People with claustrophobia tend to have a smaller amygdala, which plays a crucial role in causing anxiety, according to the 2009 study. Research published by the American Psychology Association also found that those with claustrophobia misjudge distances as closer than they actually are, which explains why they more readily perceive danger in enclosed or tight spaces.
Additionally, research traces claustrophobia back to a single gene called GPM6A. Mutations of this stress-related gene cause claustrophobia, according to a 2013 study. Mental illness is rarely as simple as one gene, but this finding may provide insight into the genetic factors at play causing the onset of claustrophobia.
“Sometimes claustrophobia can get triggered by a traumatic memory which can come up unexpectedly and catch us off guard. By being more mindful when this happens we can understand our own trauma triggers better and work to decrease its impact on us next time.”
How Is Claustrophobia Treated?
Claustrophobia is a treatable condition, with many effective options available. Treatment is effective in 90% of cases — it is a curable condition. Psychotherapy is one of the best treatment options for claustrophobia and there are multiple forms of therapy that are effective in treating this phobia.
“Cognitive Behavioral Therapy helps change negative thoughts and feelings that come from situations that trigger claustrophobia,” Anwar says. “Exposure therapy works by a person being put in a situation that is similar, but non-threatening, where they can confront their claustrophobia and cope with their fear. Visualization techniques include picturing the scenario that they find anxiety-inducing.”
Types of therapy to treat claustrophobia
- Cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) — CBT is a tried and true method of treating anxiety disorders. A CBT therapist works with their client one-on-one to change negative thought patterns and the behaviors associated with these thoughts. For claustrophobia, this looks like sessions where you work through the fear associated with confined spaces and look for ways to overcome it.
- Exposure therapy — this is another effective method for treating claustrophobia. This type of therapy slowly exposes the client to their fear so that over time they feel less overwhelmed and controlled by it. Through repeated exposure to the phobia, you can become desensitized to the intense fear previously associated with the situation.
- Visualization techniques — these techniques are also important for treating claustrophobia. In this method, the sufferer uses mental imagery to learn how to combat their fears. Visualizing a safe space while experiencing a panic attack can be a helpful technique. While in therapy, practicing visualization in order to cope with fear in the moment has been shown to be effective.
“Exposure therapy can be very effective to treat claustrophobia as it helps challenge those fears. It helps the individual realize that they can actually beat their negative thoughts and cope effectively with the anxiety that comes up from exposing themselves to what they are afraid of.”
Medications for claustrophobia
Medication works for treating claustrophobia as well, particularly in more severe cases. Anti-anxiety medication or antidepressants can decrease internal emotional dysregulation and increase the ability to cope when fears arise. Other natural supplements may work for individuals depending on their needs.
Tips for Managing Claustrophobia
When faced with a triggering situation, it is hard for someone who’s feeling claustrophobic to cope in the moment. There are ways to manage this fear though when confronted by a confined or crowded space. Practicing management strategies helps de-escalate the anxiety experienced when a trigger arises.
Ways to manage claustrophobia
A therapist can teach you how to best implement techniques like these when anxiety escalates. Some specific tips include:
- Deep breathing exercises. This can include counting inhalations and exhalations, placing a hand on your abdomen to feel your breath, square breathing, and other exercises.
- Visualization techniques (as described above).
- Counting practices, such as counting up or down by 7s.
- Grounding techniques that help you stay present. One option is using your five senses to focus on what you see, hear, touch, smell, and taste.
- Repeating a calming mantra to yourself, such as “This feeling will pass” or “I am safe.”
These exercises, among many others, can help you cope with feelings of anxiety during a challenging situation.
How to help someone with claustrophobia
It is scary to watch someone close to you deal with debilitating anxiety without knowing what to do. While you can’t solve mental illness with the snap of a finger, you can support your loved one through their challenges. Being there to listen and validate their feelings will likely mean the world to someone with anxiety. Helping them find treatment can also support them when they’re struggling for a way out.
If you or a loved one is dealing with claustrophobia, please seek out support from a licensed mental health professional. Claustrophobia is treatable; a life free from debilitating fear is attainable. Not sure where to start? Talkspace is a great first step, offering affordable online therapy with licensed professionals right at your fingertips. Get started on your journey towards healing today.