Claustrophobia is a situational phobia triggered by an irrational and intense fear of tight or crowded spaces. It can be triggered by things like being locked in a windowless room, being stuck in a crowded elevator, or driving on a congested highway.
Claustrophobia is one of the most common phobias. If you experience claustrophobia, you may feel like you’re having a panic attack, although claustrophobia isn’t a panic disorder. For some people, claustrophobia may disappear on its own. Others may need therapy to manage and cope with their symptoms.
Symptoms of claustrophobia appear following a trigger for the phobia, such as being in a closed room or a crowded space. What you consider a small space can vary depending on the severity of your phobia.
When experiencing symptoms of claustrophobia, you may feel like you’re having a panic attack. Symptoms of claustrophobia can include:
- hot flashes
- feeling intense fear or panic
- becoming anxious
- shortness of breath
- rapid heartbeat
- chest tightness or pain
- feeling faint or lightheaded
- feeling confused or disorientated
These symptoms can be mild or severe. If you’re claustrophobic, you may also:
- avoid triggering situations, such as riding in airplanes, subways, elevators, or in cars during heavy traffic
- automatically and compulsively look for the exits in every space you enter
- feel scared that the doors will shut while you're in a room
- stand near or directly by the exits while in a crowded place
Many situations can trigger claustrophobia. Triggers may include:
- being in a small room without windows
- riding in an airplane or small car
- being in a packed elevator
- undergoing a MRI or CT scan
- standing in a large, but crowded room, like at a party or concert
- standing in a closet
Other places that can trigger claustrophobia include:
- public restrooms
- car washes
- revolving doors
- store dressing rooms
- caves or crawl spaces
Your claustrophobia symptoms may be triggered by other situations not mentioned above. You may also define a small or confined space differently from other people. This is because people have their own unique sense of personal or “near” space. A 2011 study found that people with larger “near” spaces surrounding their body are more likely to feel claustrophobic when that circle is breached. So if your personal space is six feet, and someone is standing four feet away from you, you may begin to panic.
Little is known about what causes claustrophobia. Environmental factors may play a big part. People typically develop claustrophobia during childhood or in their teenage years.
Claustrophobia could be related to dysfunction of the amygdala, which is the part of the brain that controls how we process fear. The phobia can also be caused by a traumatic event, such as:
- being stuck in a tight or crowded space for an extended period of time
- experiencing turbulence when flying
- being punished by being locked in a small space, like a bathroom
- being stuck on crowded public transportation
- being left in a tight space, like a closet, by accident
You’re also more likely to develop claustrophobia if you grew up with a claustrophobic parent or family member. If a child sees their loved one becoming scared of a small, enclosed space, they may begin to associate fear and anxiety with similar situations.
You should see a doctor if your symptoms have become persistent. Don’t wait until your claustrophobia becomes too overwhelming. An early diagnosis can help you better manage your symptoms.
Your doctor will review your symptoms and give you a physical exam. They’ll also take into account your history of excessive fear that:
- isn’t associated with another disorder
- may be caused by anticipating an event
- triggers anxiety attacks related to the environment
- disrupts normal every day activities
Claustrophobia is most commonly treated by psychotherapy. Different types of counseling can help you overcome your fear and manage your triggers. You should speak with your doctor about what type of therapy will work best for you. Treatment may include any of the following:
Cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT)
A cognitive behavioral therapist will teach you how to control and alter negative thoughts that arise from situations that trigger your claustrophobia. By learning to change your thoughts, you can learn to change your reaction to these situations.
Rational emotive behavioral therapy (REBT)
REBT is an action-oriented form of CBT that focuses on the present. REBT addresses unhealthy attitudes, emotions, and behaviors. It uses a technique called "disputing" to help people develop realistic and healthy beliefs.
Relaxation and visualization
Therapists will offer different relaxation and visualization techniques to use when you’re in a claustrophobic situation. Techniques may include exercises like counting down from 10 or picturing a safe space. These techniques may help calm your nerves and ease your panic.
Exposure therapy is commonly used to treat anxiety disorders and phobias. In this therapy, you’ll be placed in a non-dangerous situation that triggers your claustrophobia in order to confront and overcome your fear. The idea is that the more you’re exposed to what scares you, the less you’ll fear it.
Your doctor may also prescribe antidepressants or an anti-anxiety medication to help treat your panic and physical symptoms. When prescribed, medications are usually used in addition to therapy.
Claustrophobia is treatable and people can recover from the condition. For some people, claustrophobia disappears when they get older. If it doesn't, there are different ways you can treat your fear and physical symptoms, as well as manage your triggers, in order to live an active and fulfilling life.
Tips for managing claustrophobia
Many people with claustrophobia will avoid the spaces that trigger their disorder. That doesn't work well as a long-term solution because you may eventually find yourself in a scary but unavoidable situation. There are ways, though, to cope during an attack.
- Breathe slowly and deeply while counting to three with each breath.
- Focus on something safe, like time passing on your watch.
- Remind yourself repeatedly that your fear and anxiety will pass.
- Challenge what’s triggering your attack by repeating that the fear is irrational.
- Visualize and focus on a place or moment that brings you calm.
It's also important not to resist the attack when it's happening. You may want to stop the attack from happening, but if you’re unable to stop it, your anxiety may increase and make the attack worse. Instead, accept that the attack is occurring, remind yourself that it’s OK to experience these feelings, reassure yourself that the attack isn't life threatening, and remember that it will pass.