What Is Claustrophobia?
Claustrophobia is an anxiety disorder that causes an intense fear of enclosed spaces. If you get very nervous or upset when you're in a tight place, like an elevator or crowded room, you might have claustrophobia.
Some people have claustrophobia symptoms when they're in all types of closed-up areas. Others notice the problem only when they're in certain cramped spaces, like inside an MRI machine.
No matter where claustrophobia pops up for you, you can overcome it with the right treatment.
Claustrophobia is different for everyone. The anxiety can range from mild nervousness to a full-blown panic attack. For doctors to diagnose the anxiety as a phobia, it has to be serious enough to affect your ability to live a normal life.
Being inside an enclosed space can trigger symptoms such as:
- Shortness of breath
- Fast heartbeat
- Shaking or trembling
- Dry mouth
- Hot flashes
- Chest tightness or pain
- Confusion or disorientation
- Choking sensation
- Urge to use the bathroom
- Fear of harm or illness
You may also feel a sense of doom, like you're going to die or the world is going to end. These feelings can be very frightening, even if you're not really in danger. And though you might realize that the fear isn't rational, you may not be able to stop it.
Panic attacks are intense and can last 5-30 minutes. Along with shortness of breath and sweating, you may also have chest pain and tightness. These are also the symptoms of a heart attack. If you're not sure whether your problems come from anxiety or a heart problem, get medical help.
Claustrophobia is what psychologists call a "specific phobia." That's a fear of certain objects, people, or activities. Fear of needles and heights, for example, are two other specific phobias. If you have one, your amygdala, the brain regions that are involved in the fear response, are overactive.
Your genes may play a role in claustrophobia. Researchers have found a defect in a gene called GPM6A that they suspect may cause it. If one of your parents has claustrophobia, you're more likely to have it, too.
Sometimes, the fear of enclosed spaces starts after you've had a traumatic childhood event, like:
- Being stuck in a tight place like an elevator
Having another anxiety disorder raises your chances of having claustrophobia, too.
Any confined area can set off your fear, including things like:
- Airplanes or subway trains
- Revolving doors
- Car washes
- Bathroom stalls or changing rooms
- Cars with automatic door locks
Just being in a room or a car with the windows shut can set off anxiety in some people.
Your doctor will ask about your symptoms and health history, and they’ll give you a physical exam. They’ll take into account any fear that may:
- Be triggered by waiting for something to happen
- Cause panic attacks linked to the situation that triggers fear
- Make it hard for you to get through your day
- Not be explained by other disorders
Without treatment, you might find that you deal with claustrophobia by avoiding the object of your fear. You might stay away from tight places, taking the stairs instead of the elevator or walking instead of riding the subway. You might scan every crowded room for the exits or stand close to the door. Some people, if their anxiety is severe enough, may be afraid to leave their homes.
- Exposure therapy. It gradually puts you into the situations that frighten you to help you get over your fear. At first, you might just look at a photo of a tight space. Then, with your therapist's help, you work up to being inside a tight space.
- Cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT). This is a type of talk therapy where you meet one-on-one with a trained therapist. You talk about the negative thoughts that drive your fear and learn ways to overcome them. You may get CBT alone or combined with exposure therapy.
- Virtual reality (VR). This uses computer simulations of tight spaces like elevators or MRI machines. Getting the experience of a tight space in the virtual world can help you get over your fear in a setting that feels safe.
- Relaxation and visualization. You can learn ways to calm your fear when you’re in a situation that usually scares you.
- Medical treatment. If therapy isn't enough, your doctor can prescribe anxiety drugs or antidepressants to help you deal with the situations that cause your fear.
Support is key when you're trying to overcome a phobia. Talk to your partner, other family members, and friends. You can even ask them to come with you to therapy sessions.
When to Call Your Doctor
If you're so afraid of enclosed spaces that it affects your daily routine, get help from a mental health professional. You can see a psychologist, therapist, or an anxiety specialist. With the right treatment, you can learn how to control your response to situations you once feared.
Claustrophobia can be treated and cured. There are different ways to treat your fear and symptoms so you can have an active and healthy life.