If you have a fear of tight spaces, a fear of being trapped, or a fear of elevators, you may have claustrophobia. A form of anxiety disorder, claustrophobia is defined as an irrational fear of small spaces and of having no way to escape; the feeling of being closed in without being able to get out can actually lead to a panic attack. Feelings of claustrophobia can be triggered by entering an elevator, a small, windowless room, or even an airplane. Wearing tight-necked clothing may also cause feelings of claustrophobia in some individuals.

Claustrophobia is very common. “Studies have generally indicated that about 7% of the population, or up to 10%, is affected by claustrophobia,” says Bernard J. Vittone, MD, founder and director of The National Center for the Treatment of Phobias, Anxiety and Depression. “I think that studies underestimate how common it actually is. It’s one of the most common psychiatric problems.”

The word claustrophobia comes from the Greek word, “phobos,” which means fear, and the Latin word, “claustrum,” which means “A closed-in place.”

The irrational, involuntary fear of tight, small spaces can cause sufferers to avoid everyday places, even though they are aware that there is not any real danger. A person who has claustrophobia knows that the fear is irrational, but even thinking about the fear can create anxiety. When they are faced with the feared situation, they feel like they are having a panic attack, a heart attack, or as if they could even stop breathing and pass out.

Causes of Claustrophobia

Claustrophobia can occur because of panic attacks caused by an imbalance of neurotransmitters in the brain, says Dr. Vittone. A person may get a panic attack—frequently out of the blue, he says. “The panic center in the brain goes off even though there is nothing to be panicked about,” he explains. “The person gets shaky, dizzy, and can feel like they might die, go crazy, or lose control.”

When this happens, the person has an urge to get out of the situation she was in when the panic attack began, such as the grocery store. “A panic attack can last for 10 to 15 minutes and then it goes away,” Dr. Vittone explains. “But the person makes the association with the grocery store and how the panic attack went away when she left the grocery store. The next time they are in the grocery store, their anticipatory anxiety goes up and they may even have another panic attack.”

Claustrophobia, less commonly, can occur when someone has been traumatized in a situation where he or she felt trapped, Dr. Vittone says. “Then they may make an association in a Post Traumatic Stress Disorder type of fashion between being trapped and having flashbacks to the feeling of terror they had,” he says.

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Symptoms of Claustrophobia

There are a variety of symptoms of claustrophobia, such as:

  • An excessive fear brought on when in a crowded, confined, or small space
  • Sweating and chills
  • Dry mouth
  • Headache and numbness
  • Tightness in the chest, and chest pain
  • Nausea
  • Disorientation and confusion
  • Lightheadedness, fainting, and dizziness
  • High blood pressure and an accelerated heart rate

Treatment Options for Claustrophobia

Among the medications that can be helpful for claustrophobia are SSRIs such as Zoloft, Paxil, or Lexapro, Dr. Vittone says.

Another treatment involves gradual desensitization, he explains. For this, an individual is exposed in a graduated way to what he fears. If he is afraid of being in a movie theater, for instance, he may first sit in the back row and then gradually move into a middle row where he is surrounded by other moviegoers. Cognitive behavioral therapy techniques can be helpful during this gradual desensitization, Dr. Vittone says. “This would involve relaxation, breathing correctly, and the challenging of the person’s catastrophic thoughts by a therapist,” he says.

Action Steps

Be honest with your loved ones.  Don’t let embarrassment get in the way of speaking up about your claustrophobia. You will find you have more support if you are honest about your fears.

Get help. Ask your doctor for the name of a counselor who can treat claustrophobia. It is a common and treatable phobia, so the sooner you get help, the better. Getting support and conquering your fear will help you move beyond this phobia and begin to live your life without being haunted by irrational thoughts.

Read up on claustrophobia. You may be surprised to learn just how common feelings of claustrophobia are, and how treatable the phobia is. Sometimes just educating yourself about a phobia and exploring treatment options can be very helpful.

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Last Updated: Sep 12, 2019