What Is Claustrophobia? Everything You Need to Know

Claustrophobia is an irrational and intense fear of enclosed or crowded spaces. Those who experience it will often avoid crowded rooms, elevators, airplanes, and other confined spaces as a way of coping, but this only reinforces the phobia.

Like other phobias and anxiety disorders, claustrophobia can severely impact people’s lives, including their social, work, school, and family life. It’s quite common, too, with up to 5% of the US general population suffering from it.

The severity varies from person to person, with some only experiencing mild anxiety while others can have intense panic attacks. What triggers claustrophobia also varies from person to person.

Thankfully, people can overcome claustrophobia with the right help and treatment. If you think you might have claustrophobia or know someone who has, keep reading as we’ll explain what the symptoms are, triggers, causes, best treatments, and more.

What Triggers Claustrophobia?

Various situations can trigger claustrophobia. However, there can be differences between sufferers; what triggers one claustrophobic person won’t necessarily trigger another.

Some sufferers don’t even need to be exposed to a confined space to experience the symptoms. Simply anticipating or thinking about a specific situation may be enough to trigger their claustrophobia.

Here are some of the most common triggers of claustrophobia:

  • Small windowless room
  • Packed elevators
  • Busy trains, airplanes, small cars, and other transport
  • Crowded spaces such as music concerts
  • MRI and CT scans
  • Revolving doors
  • Tunnels
  • Closets and store dressing rooms

If you’ve noticed yourself avoiding any of the situations above or similar recently due to fear or anxiety, there’s a good chance you may have claustrophobia.

Claustrophobia Symptoms

The symptoms of claustrophobia, which can be physical, mental, and behavioral, usually appear following a trigger.

It’s common for people with claustrophobia to experience panic attacks, which can last between 5 and 30 minutes. While panic attacks are not dangerous, they can feel very unpleasant, scary, and distressing.

Physical Symptoms

The physical symptoms of claustrophobia can include:

  • Trembling
  • Hot flashes
  • Sweating
  • Shortness of breath or chest tightness
  • Hyperventilation
  • Feeling faint, dizzy, or lightheaded
  • Feeling disoriented or confused
  • Increased heart rate
  • Feeling nauseous
  • A dry mouth or difficulty swallowing
  • Feeling numb or tingling

Psychological Symptoms

The psychological symptoms of claustrophobia can include:

  • Fear of dying
  • Fear of harm
  • Feeling like you’re losing control
  • Fear of passing out
  • A sense of dread

Behavioral Symptoms

Behavioral changes caused by claustrophobia can include:

  • Avoiding situations that trigger you, such as elevators or taking the busy subway.
  • Standing near the exits in busy places.
  • Habitually checking for exits when you enter a space.
  • Worrying about being trapped inside a room and panicking when doors are closed.

What Causes Claustrophobia?

Claustrophobia usually develops during childhood or adolescence, but it can also emerge in adulthood. Traumatic events and environmental factors are often the cause, such as:

  • Being trapped or held in an enclosed space.
  • Being stuck or lost in a crowded area.
  • Growing up with a parent or close family member who has claustrophobia.
  • Being locked in a tight space or small room as punishment or by accident.
  • Getting stuck on a subway train or experiencing turbulence on an airplane.

An overactive or dysfunctional amygdala may also cause or contribute to claustrophobia. The amygdala is the region of the brain that controls your fear response. Genetics can also play a role, as you’re more likely to have claustrophobia if one of your biological parents does.

Impact of Claustrophobia

Claustrophobia can have a significant impact on the lives of those affected. It’s a source of continuous stress that can affect both your mental and physical health.

People with claustrophobia can miss out on job opportunities and skip enjoyable activities as they limit themselves and avoid situations that might trigger an attack.

Here are some of the ways claustrophobia can affect people’s lives:

  • Not being able to travel or take holidays abroad due to a fear of airplanes and other forms of transport.
  • Limited job opportunities and issues or difficulty at work.
  • Difficulty maintaining an active social life due to fear of judgment from others or having to face triggering situations.
  • Avoidance and limiting oneself result in low confidence and self-esteem.
  • Struggling with everyday activities such as using public toilets or an elevator.
  • Elevated stress levels take a toll on physical health over time.
  • Continuous worry, anxiety, and negative thoughts contribute to poor mental health.

Treatments for Claustrophobia

There are various treatments available that can help you overcome claustrophobia. Talking to a medical professional or psychologist is the first essential step to take.

They can give you an accurate diagnosis, show you how to overcome claustrophobia, and recommend the most appropriate treatments for you.

People with claustrophobia usually are fully aware they have it, but they may feel reluctant to seek help and instead cope by avoiding triggering situations.

However, avoidance only worsens a phobia, so if you have claustrophobia or know someone who has, please seek help or encourage others to do so.

The main treatments for claustrophobia include:

Exposure Therapy

During exposure therapy, you are exposed gradually to situations that trigger your claustrophobia. It allows you to confront your fears in a safe environment. With successive treatments, you will become desensitized to these situations and able to overcome them. The therapist will likely start with more manageable tasks, such as looking at images and progress gradually up to being in a confined space.

Cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT)

CBT is a form of talking therapy where you have one-on-one meetings, either online or in-person, with a therapist. During CBT, you will explore the negative thoughts, emotions, and behaviors driving your claustrophobia and learn ways to manage them effectively. By changing how you think and act, you can develop effective ways to overcome claustrophobia.

Visualization and Relaxation

A therapist teaches you how to use different visualization and relaxation techniques to help calm your fears and relieve panic attacks when you’re in triggering situations. Often, this includes breathing techniques, counting, reassuring self-talk, or imagining somewhere you feel safe.

Virtual Reality (VR) Therapy

A therapist works with the claustrophobic patient using a VR headset. The patient is exposed to and engages with simulations of confined spaces, such as elevators and small windowless rooms. It can be effective because patients are more willing to face triggering situations virtually as they know it’s safe. It helps them practice effective coping techniques, which they can then use in the real world.

Medication

In some cases, a doctor or therapist may prescribe anti-anxiety medication or antidepressants to help the patient cope with the symptoms of claustrophobia. Medication is usually given alongside therapy.

Coping with Panic Attacks and Claustrophobia

Avoidance isn’t a viable long-term solution because it can make your phobia worse and leaves you unprepared when eventually you have to face a claustrophobic situation.

Instead, it’s better to seek professional help and learn how to manage your triggers. Here are six tips on coping with claustrophobia symptoms and panic attacks when they arise:

  1. Stay put, don’t move from where you are (if safe to do so), and see the panic attack through.
  2. Begin slowly breathing, counting to three on each inhale and exhale.
  3. Remind yourself that you’re safe and that your panic attack or anxious feelings will pass.
  4. Switch your focus and concentrate on a non-threatening object you can see, such as a flower or ornament.
  5. When irrational thoughts arise, such as “I’m having a heart attack,” challenge them by thinking more logically.
  6. Visualize yourself in a happy or calming place, such as a paradise beach or tranquil mountains.

Summary

While claustrophobia can affect people’s lives in many ways, it’s important to know that it can be successfully treated. Trying to deal with it alone is rarely the best approach, especially if it involves avoidance as a coping strategy, as this will only compound the problem.

Seeking professional help is the fastest way to get yourself on the path to recovery, but talking to trusted friends, family members, or support groups can also provide immense value and support. There’s no point in letting claustrophobia hold you back when help is available.

If you’d like to talk to someone about claustrophobia and receive professional advice, our experienced therapists here at Calmerry are ready to help. All of our online therapy services are completely confidential and carried out by licensed counselors who use evidence-based approaches.

Kate Skurat

Kate Skurat

Licensed Mental Health | Washington, United States

Kate has a B.S. in Psychology and M.A. in Clinical Psychology from Pepperdine University and has worked in healthcare since 2017. She primarily treated depression, anxiety, eating disorders, trauma, and grief, as well as identity, relationship and adjustment issues. Her clinical experience has focused on individual and group counseling, emergency counseling and outreach. Read more