Claustrophobia, or fear of enclosed spaces, is one of the most common phobias. Claustrophobia can involve intense fear or even panic as a result of being in a small space. A phobia is a form of specific anxiety disorder where one has an irrational fear of a certain situation or object. Furthermore, claustrophobia is designated as a situational phobia, because it is triggered by a certain situation.

Causes of Claustrophobia

Claustrophobia can develop after a traumatic childhood experience (such as being trapped in a small space during a childhood game), or from another unpleasant experience later on in life involving confined spaces (such as being stuck in an elevator).  When an individual experiences such an event, it can often trigger a frightening panic attack; this response then becomes programmed in the brain, establishing an association between being in a tight space and feeling anxious or out-of-control. As a result, the person often develops claustrophobia.

Although claustrophobia can cause panic attacks, it is not the same disorder. According to Mark Powers, Ph.D., Associate Professor of Psychology at Southern Methodist University and Co-Director of the Dallas CBT Center, “Claustrophobia is a specific phobia and not a type of panic disorder. The primary specific threat forecasts for claustrophobia are that either the person will be trapped or run our of air.”

Symptoms of Claustrophobia

When a person with claustrophobia finds herself in a restricted space, her body responds in certain ways.

Claustrophobia symptoms can include:

  • sweating
  • accelerated heartbeat
  • nausea
  • fainting
  • light-headedness
  • shaking
  • hyperventilation
  • a fear of actual imminent physical harm

Some common situations that can cause anxiety in claustrophobia sufferers include:

  • Being inside a room: the individual will look for an exit, for example, at a movie theatre
  • Being inside a car: the individual will avoid driving on the highway or major roads where there is heavy traffic
  • Being inside a building: the individual will avoid taking elevators
  • Being at a party: the individual will stand near a door
  • Being on an airplane
  • While undergoing an MRI or CAT scan (also referred to as MRI claustrophobia and CAT scan claustrophobia, respectively)

In extreme cases, the very sight of a closed door can lead to feelings of anxiety in the individual.

Claustrophobia can have crippling social and psychological effects since the patient will often avoid situations in which she thinks she will have an anxiety attack, leading to isolation and depression.

Claustrophobia Treatment

The good news is that claustrophobia is very treatable. According to Dr. Powers, “Exposure treatment, a form of cognitive-behavioral therapy, usually results in a total reduction in anxiety symptoms if conducted properly.”

Behavior therapy includes identifying trigger points and recognizing that one’s reactions to these triggers are learned instead of natural; through visualization and practicing being in small spaces, the individual learns to disassociate feelings of danger with the confined space.

Flooding is a type of exposure treatment in which the individual is exposed to a situation until the anxiety attack passes; a less extreme form of exposure treatment is counter-conditioning. Counter-conditioning includes behavior therapy, as the individual is taught visualization and relaxation techniques before being slowly reintroduced to the trigger situation.

Treatment for claustrophobia can also include medication or a combination of several treatments.

Neuro-Linguistic Programming is a type of behavior therapy that deconstructs the individual’s preconceived view of reality, reducing the anxiety provoked by a specific situation or setting.

Medications prescribed to help treat claustrophobia include anti-depressants and beta-blockers, which help to relieve the heart pounding often associated with anxiety attacks.

Alternative claustrophobia treatments include regression hypnotherapy, in which hypnotherapy is used to remember the traumatic event that led to the individual’s claustrophobia. The patient is taught to see the event with ‘adult’ eyes, which helps to decrease the sense of panic that it has instilled into their minds.

Learn more information about anxiety disorder treatments.

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