What Is Claustrophobia? Symptoms, Causes, Coping
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Claustrophobia refers to the fear of small spaces. It falls under a type of anxiety disorder called a specific phobia.  Vadakkan, C. (2023, February 8). Claustrophobia. StatPearls – NCBI Bookshelf. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/books/NBK542327/  Eaton, W. W., Bienvenu, O. J., & Miloyan, B. (2018). Specific phobias. The Lancet Psychiatry, 5(8), 678–686. https://doi.org/10.1016/s2215-0366(18)30169-x
Individuals with claustrophobia experience extreme fear in enclosed spaces, such as small rooms, MRI machines, elevators, tunnels, or crowded places.
When someone has a phobia of small spaces, this fear can interfere significantly with daily life. For instance, it may be difficult for them to maintain meaningful relationships or be successful at a job.
Fortunately, there is an effective treatment for claustrophobia. Learning about the causes and symptoms of this condition and how it is treated can be helpful for learning how to better manage it so it does not interfere with wellbeing.
Symptoms of claustrophobia
If someone has referred to you as claustrophobic, or you believe you have this anxiety disorder, learning about its symptoms can help you to determine if that is the case.
- Extreme fear of being in enclosed spaces
- Avoidance of small spaces
- Worry about being trapped
- Feeling as if one cannot breathe or is suffocating when in an enclosed space
- Demonstrating anxiety in response to triggers, such as thoughts of small spaces
- Trembling or shaking
- Feeling dizzy, lightheaded, or faint
- Overwhelming need to escape
- Feeling detached from oneself or feeling that things are not real
- A sense of impending doom or fear of death
When a person has severe claustrophobia or is exposed to an enclosed space, they may have panic attacks.
Signs of a panic attack associated with claustrophobia include:
- Elevated heart rate
- Dry mouth
- Feeling dizzy
- Feeling numb
- Chest pain
- Difficulty breathing
- Feeling as if one is choking
How common is claustrophobia?
Prevalence data give us a general idea of how common claustrophobia is in the general population.
According to government data, around 12.5% of the population experiences claustrophobia at some point during their lifetimes.  Anxiety disorders. (n.d.). National Institute of Mental Health (NIMH). https://www.nimh.nih.gov/health/topics/anxiety-disorders
Research with patients undergoing Magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) provides additional insights into the prevalence of severe claustrophobia. According to this research, an average of 2.3% of patients who need an MRI must be sedated, or are unable to complete the procedure, because of severe symptoms.
Causes of claustrophobia
There is not one singular cause of claustrophobia. Rather, the condition results from several risk factors that make a person more likely to develop phobias.
In general, claustrophobia is the result of dysfunctional activity in the brain.  Vadakkan, C. (2023, February 8). Claustrophobia. StatPearls – NCBI Bookshelf. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/books/NBK542327/ For instance, the frontal lobes, which are responsible for rational thought and self-control, are unable to temper the activity of the emotionally responsive amygdala.
Beyond this, there are some general risk factors that make it more likely that a person will develop phobias, including claustrophobia.  Anxiety disorders. (n.d.). National Institute of Mental Health (NIMH). https://www.nimh.nih.gov/health/topics/anxiety-disorders
- Traumatic life experiences
- Having a history of feeling nervous in new situations
- A family history of anxiety disorders or other mental health conditions
Is claustrophobia genetic?
Genes can make it more likely that a person will develop claustrophobia. In fact, researchers have found that a defect in a single gene is associated with the development of claustrophobia symptoms.  El-Kordi, A., Kästner, A., Grube, S., Klugmann, M., Begemann, M., Sperling, S., Hammerschmidt, K., Hammer, C., Stepniak, B., Patzig, J., De Monasterio-Schrader, P., Strenzke, N., Flügge, G., Werner, H., Pawlak, R., Nave, K., & Ehrenreich, H. (2013). A single gene defect causing claustrophobia. Translational Psychiatry, 3(4), e254. https://doi.org/10.1038/tp.2013.28
What triggers claustrophobia?
Claustrophobia symptoms typically arise when someone is in an enclosed space in which they feel trapped.
Some situations that can trigger symptoms include:
- Riding on a crowded bus
- Being in a small or locked room
- Riding in an elevator
- Walking through a tunnel
- Being in a large crowd where fast escape is difficult
Some people may experience claustrophobia symptoms when receiving care in a medical office. For instance, a person can feel claustrophobic when sitting in a dentist’s chair or when inside an MRI machine.
These tight spaces can make it seem like one is trapped, triggering symptoms.
Any situation in which a person feels trapped and as if their movement is restricted can trigger symptoms.
They may feel as if they cannot breathe or worry about having a panic attack when they feel trapped. These feelings can trigger a cascade of fear and anxiety-related symptoms.
Can claustrophobia go away?
Claustrophobia doesn’t typically just go away naturally, but it can be treated. Left untreated, it is often chronic and linked with co-occurring disorders like depression.
When claustrophobia isn’t treated, it may grow worse with time, causing significant impairment in daily life. A person with untreated claustrophobia may withdraw from social interaction or have a hard time maintaining a job.
How to overcome claustrophobia
Fortunately, there is treatment for claustrophobia. With quality treatment, which often involves therapy, medication, or a combination of the two, it is possible to overcome the fear of being enclosed in small spaces so that you can participate more fully in life.
Therapy for anxiety disorders can be beneficial for overcoming claustrophobia. There are numerous different therapeutic methods used in the treatment of these conditions. One of the most common treatments is cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT).  Vadakkan, C. (2023, February 8). Claustrophobia. StatPearls – NCBI Bookshelf. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/books/NBK542327/
CBT can help individuals with claustrophobia overcome negative or distorted thinking patterns leading to symptoms. With the guidance of a therapist, a person can learn to replace distorted thinking patterns with logical, healthier thought processes.
Claustrophobia can also be treated with exposure therapies, which as the name suggests, expose people to the source of their fear with the guidance of a therapist.  Vadakkan, C. (2023, February 8). Claustrophobia. StatPearls – NCBI Bookshelf. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/books/NBK542327/
Today, exposure therapy can be conducted using virtual reality tools. These tools can expose people to the sensation of being in an MRI machine, for example, so they can learn to reduce the fear associated with it.
Some people may benefit from taking medication to cope with symptoms.  Vadakkan, C. (2023, February 8). Claustrophobia. StatPearls – NCBI Bookshelf. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/books/NBK542327/ A type of anxiety medication called benzodiazepines may be prescribed in small quantities when a person cannot avoid the source of their phobia (i.e., if they need an MRI for a medical condition).
Other medications used in treatment belong to a class of drugs called selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors (SSRIs).  Vadakkan, C. (2023, February 8). Claustrophobia. StatPearls – NCBI Bookshelf. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/books/NBK542327/
These medications are typically used to treat depression but can also be helpful for anxiety disorders. Medications in this class include paroxetine and escitalopram.
Professional treatment is often necessary for overcoming claustrophobia, but there are also self-help strategies that can be useful when learning how to deal with symptoms.
Consider the strategies below:
- Learn relaxation techniques: relaxation techniques like deep breathing and meditation can be helpful if you’re living with claustrophobia symptoms. These techniques can calm the body and keep your stress levels lower. You might consider practicing these techniques when you start to experience panic symptoms related to claustrophobia.
- Enlist social support: telling trusted friends and family members about your fears can be beneficial. It’s helpful to have people in your corner who understand what you’re experiencing. These can be people you turn to when you’re feeling stressed or who can accompany you during fear-provoking situations, such as riding in public transportation.
- Find a support group: support groups for anxiety disorders allow you to connect with people experiencing similar struggles. You can share your experiences and learn coping strategies that have been useful for others.
The following common questions provide additional information about claustrophobia.
Is claustrophobia just anxiety?
Claustrophobia is an anxiety disorder, so it does involve symptoms of anxiety.
In addition to severe anxiety related to being in enclosed spaces, individuals with claustrophobia often experience intense fear and are likely to avoid places where they feel enclosed or trapped.
Can you die from claustrophobia?
People who experience claustrophobia symptoms may worry they are going to die, but the condition itself is not fatal. Feeling claustrophobic can make a person feel as if they are suffocating, which can make them worry about death.
Panic symptoms like chest pain can also make a person worry they are experiencing a heart attack.
While symptoms can feel life-threatening, the reality is that claustrophobia will not kill you. It can make you feel panicked, and these symptoms can mirror life-threatening situations like heart attack or respiratory distress.
How to deal with claustrophobia on a plane
If you’re riding on a plane, and you know that this will be a trigger for symptoms, it can be helpful to talk with your doctor in advance of the trip. They may be able to prescribe a small supply of benzodiazepines, an anxiety medication that can reduce symptoms of panic.
You can also practice calming strategies like deep breathing exercises while on the plane.
If you can, travel with a close friend or relative who is willing to support you along the way.
How to help someone with claustrophobia
If a loved one has claustrophobia, it’s important to be understanding. Try to learn more about the condition so that you understand what they’re experiencing.
Offer support and encouragement by suggesting that they seek treatment and being available to talk when they’re feeling stressed.
Get help on Calmerry
If you’re looking for claustrophobia treatment, Calmerry is here to help.
We offer online therapy with credentialed mental health professionals trained in treating specific phobias.
Fill out a brief survey to get matched with a professional in your particular problem within 1 hour – and get started with therapy from the comfort of home.