Claustrophobia: Types, Symptoms, Causes, Treatment

Claustrophobia: Types, Symptoms, Causes, Treatment

Claustrophobia is a fear of enclosed spaces like cars, elevators, closets, airplanes, and tunnels. People with claustrophobia tend to go out of their way to avoid situations where they will be in enclosed spaces. When they find themselves in enclosed spaces, they experience symptoms of panic.

Claustrophobia is a type of anxiety disorder called a specific phobia. It affects about 12.5% of the population. Many people have claustrophobia their entire lives, but treatment—often therapy—can help manage symptoms and improve overall quality of life.

Claustrophobia is when you experience phobias of closed spaces. Types of closed spaces that people with claustrophobia fear include:

  • Magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) machines
  • Trains
  • Airplanes
  • Cars
  • Closets
  • Elevators
  • Tunnels
  • Crawl spaces
  • Small attics
  • Any small, cramped room or space

People with claustrophobia aren’t just afraid when they are in enclosed spaces. Simply thinking about them can cause feelings of dread and fear.

People with claustrophobia will usually go to great lengths to avoid closed spaces. They may have a general fear of closed spaces but also fears about what could possibly happen in these spaces, including the idea that they could become trapped in an enclosed space.

These feelings of fear and panic often increase once the person is in an enclosed space. They may complain of feeling suffocated or unable to breathe. They may fear not getting enough oxygen in the small space, which may increase the feeling of having trouble breathing. Shortness of breath may also be linked to symptoms of panic often triggered by being in a confined space.

Everyone is different in terms of the symptoms they experience. Possible symptoms include:

  • Rapid heartbeat
  • Dizziness
  • Difficulty breathing
  • Shallow breathing
  • Chills or hot flashes
  • Dry mouth
  • Headaches
  • Nausea
  • Digestive upset
  • Nausea
  • Disorientation and confusion

Researchers aren’t sure exactly what causes a person to develop claustrophobia. Like other anxiety disorders, it’s likely that the cause is multifactorial, meaning that several factors together cause the condition to develop. These may include psychological, environmental, social, and biological factors.

Parenting or caregiving techniques might play a role. For example:

  • Having an overly protective or excessively critical caregiver may increase the likelihood that you develop a specific phobia like claustrophobia.
  • Growing up with a caregiver who has anxiety also increases your chances of having it.
  • The idea of “modeling” may come into play. If your caregiver reacts to stressors in anxious or phobic ways, you may internalize this and react similarly.

Although the research is new, there are some indicators that genetics may be involved in the development of phobias, specifically claustrophobia. One study found that mutations in a specific gene—the human GPM6A gene—may contribute to claustrophobia. However, more research needs to be done to prove this link definitively.

If you experience symptoms of claustrophobia, start by visiting your primary care provider (PCP). They may want to rule out any medical conditions causing your symptoms. For example, conditions like thyroid disorders, asthma, heart conditions, and diabetes may be mistaken for signs of anxiety and panic.

If your provider believes that your symptoms are likely psychological in nature, they will likely refer you to a psychologist or psychiatrist. Usually, a mental health professional can diagnose you with claustrophobia based on your symptoms alone. They will likely ask you questions like:

  • Can you describe your symptoms in detail?
  • What does your fear of enclosed spaces feel like?
  • How often do you experience this fear?
  • What happens when you are in a small space?
  • Does your fear of enclosed spaces affect your day-to-day functioning?

For many people, claustrophobia tends to be a chronic (long-term) condition, meaning that they experience it in some form or other throughout their lifetime. However, that doesn’t mean it can be managed.

The main way that claustrophobia is managed is through therapy. The two most commonly used forms of therapy used to treat claustrophobia are cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) and exposure therapy.

  • In CBT, you learn to recognize your negative or scary thoughts and then learn techniques to manage these thoughts.
  • In exposure therapy, you are exposed to the thing you fear—in this case, an enclosed area—within the safe space of the therapy environment.

One promising type of exposure therapy for claustrophobia is virtual reality technology (VR). VR simulates being in an enclosed space, and the person is gradually introduced to the claustrophobia trigger. VR scenarios may include elevators and MRI machines. It’s unclear how effective this technique is. Research suggests that VR for claustrophobia can help on a long-term basis in about 40% of cases.

Therapy might be combined with psychiatric medication. Medications commonly used include:

  • Benzodiazepines: Medications that slow the nervous system and have a sedative (relaxing) effect, used to treat conditions like anxiety and insomnia
  • Selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors (SSRIs): Antidepressant medications that increase levels of the hormone serotonin in the brain (which helps regulate mood)
  • Oral hydrocortisone: Calms the body’s immune response

Most people with claustrophobia will experience the disorder throughout their lifetimes and may also develop other specific phobias or anxiety disorders. However, claustrophobia can be managed.

Seeking an experienced therapist and looking into combining medication with therapy can decrease the intensity of your claustrophobic episodes and may decrease how often you experience claustrophobia.

Lifestyle modifications and healthy daily habits can also help you manage your claustrophobia. This may include the following:

  • Prioritize getting enough sleep each night
  • Focus on a nutrient-rich diet
  • Add in movement and exercise throughout your day

Mindfulness and meditation can also be helpful for claustrophobia. One study found that mindfulness respiratory decompression therapy (a mindfulness program used in clinical settings) effectively helped people who experienced claustrophobia associated with MRI machines.

People with claustrophobia have an 83% chance of having other specific phobias or developing them later in life. On its own, claustrophobia doesn’t usually lead to suicide ideas or self-harm. However, having claustrophobia along with depression, anxiety, or other mental health conditions increases your risk of suicidal ideation.

Claustrophobia can also restrict your life, as you might avoid situations where you will have to be in an enclosed space.

Although most people deal with claustrophobia chronically, it doesn’t mean that the condition has to have a hold over your life. Over 12% of the population has claustrophobia, and most people can manage it with healthy lifestyle choices, therapy, and medication.

With treatment and self-care, you can decrease the intensity of your claustrophobic symptoms, have fewer episodes of claustrophobia, and live a full and meaningful life.

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