Claustrophobia – Symptoms, Causes, Diagnosis, and Treatment

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This article has been based on relevant and up-to-date scientific studies. Our writers are unbiased and objective and present the facts as they are known. Numbers in brackets within the article refer to sources included in the reference list at the end of the article.

One of the most common phobias out there, claustrophobia is a type of anxiety disorder triggered by an intense and irrational fear of crowded or tight spaces.

Claustrophobia is often triggered by the things like being stuck in a narrow and crowded elevator, being locked in a small room without windows, wearing tight-necked clothing, or being stuck underground.

People suffering from claustrophobia might have a severe panic attack in the closed spaces, albeit this phobia isn’t considered as a panic disorder.

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While some people can cope with claustrophobia on their own, others require a special therapy to handle and ease their symptoms. Read on to find out the symptoms, causes, diagnosis, and treatment of claustrophobia.

What are the major symptoms of claustrophobia?

The symptoms of claustrophobia highly depend on a trigger of this anxiety disorder. There are plenty of triggers, including:

  • standing in a closet;
  • staying in a big yet crowded room, such as at a concert or party;
  • undergoing a CT scan or MRI;
  • being in a jam-packed elevator or bus;
  • riding in a small car;
  • riding in an airplane;
  • being in a small room with one tiny window or without windows at all like in a bathroom;

There are also other places that can trigger claustrophobia, including tunnels, crawl spaces, caves, store dressing rooms, revolving doors, car washes, and public restrooms.

The major symptoms include:

  • feeling disorientated or confused;
  • feeling lightheaded or faint;
  • nausea;
  • chest tightness and pain;
  • suffocation;
  • rapid and intense heartbeat;
  • hyperventilation;
  • shortness of breath;
  • feeling anxious;
  • feeling an intense panic or fear;
  • hot flashes;
  • trembling;

All of these symptoms can occur at the same time and might be so severe that you have to call a doctor. If you’re suffering from claustrophobia, you might also experience:

  • feeling terrified that a door shuts while you’re in a room sleeping, for instance;
  • compulsively and automatically looking for the exits in each big or small space as soon as you enter it;
  • avoiding situations that make you feel anxious like riding in elevators, subways, airplanes, or in cars during a heavy traffic;
  • standing directly by or near the exits in a highly crowded place.

Sometimes, the symptoms of claustrophobia aren’t necessarily caused by other situations. People with claustrophobia have a tendency to define a confined or small space differently from non-claustrophobic people.

That’s because each person has their own sense of a “near” or personal space.

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A study done by a group of American and British researchers showed that individuals with the bigger “near” spaces surrounding their bodies tend to experience the symptoms of claustrophobia once that circle is changed.

Let’s say, your personal space is 5 feet, and if someone stands 3 feet away from you, you’re more likely to start feeling claustrophobic.

What are the major causes of claustrophobia?

Although some of the causes were mentioned above, scientists and doctors are still trying to figure the major triggers of this condition.

They believe that certain environmental factors might play an important role in the development of claustrophobia.

A few studies have found that claustrophobia is more likely to develop during childhood and teenage years.

The experiences and situations that can have this effect in children may include:

  • having a parent or a sibling with claustrophobia;
  • accidently being left in a very tight space, such as a box or a closet;
  • being separated from parents in a crowded place;
  • being stuck on a public transportation full of people and little free space;
  • getting punished on a regular basis by being locked in a very small space, such as a bathroom;
  • experiencing intense turbulence during the flight;
  • being stuck in a crowded or tight space for a long period of time;
  • being bullied or abused as a child;
  • being kept or trapped in a confined place, on purpose or by accident.

While there’s no scientific proof that children who grow up with a claustrophobic parent or a family member develop claustrophobia, yet the risk factor is high.

When a child sees that someone in their family is afraid of a small space, they’re more likely to start developing anxiety and fear when being in similar situations as an adult.

There are also possible physical or genetic factors that might explain claustrophobia. Having a smaller amygdala is one of them. Amygdala is the part of the brain that regulates the way the body processes the fear.

Scientists have noticed that claustrophobic people have a smaller amygdala than non-claustrophobic individuals.

There are also genetic factors to consider, but more research is needed to explain this cause.

How’s claustrophobia diagnosed?

If you think you might be suffering from claustrophobia, it’s recommended to visit a psychiatrist or psychologist. Sometimes people confuse claustrophobia with random panic attacks.

An early diagnosis of claustrophobia helps to manage its symptoms more effectively. The doctor might ask you to describe your symptoms and possible causes. This will help them establish how intense or severe your symptoms are and figure out any other possible type of anxiety disorder.

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Your doctor may use a claustrophobia scale in order to find out the levels of the condition as well as a special claustrophobia questionnaire that aids in identifying the possible cause of this form of anxiety. Your doctor can also ask you about your childhood and family history.

How to cope with claustrophobia at home

Not specifically at home, but anywhere you experience the symptoms of claustrophobia.

A lot of claustrophobic people try to avoid the places that can cause anxiety. But sometimes it’s hard or impossible to avoid such spaces, so keep in mind the following tips to be ready to tame your claustrophobic attack:

  • Deeply and slowly breathe while counting to 3 with every breath.
  • Concentrate on something comfortable, safe or pleasurable. Try visualization technique. Visualize yourself on a vast beach or in a huge field full of flowers. Anything that can bring you calm works.
  • Keep reminding yourself that your fear is going to pass very soon. Remind yourself that the fear is absolutely irrational.

Don’t resist your claustrophobic attack; otherwise your symptoms can get worse over time. If you have trouble stopping the attack and you start feeling terrified, ask for help.

The key to successfully coping with claustrophobia is accepting and realizing that it’s okay to experience the fear. Just remind yourself that the fear isn’t life threatening and it’ll pass as soon as you want it to.

Conventional treatment of claustrophobia

Psychotherapy is required for people with claustrophobia. There are various types of special counseling that help to fight the fear and prevent the triggers. A doctor decides on what type of therapy you need only after a complete diagnosis. Generally, there are 7 ways to treat claustrophobia with the help of a conventional treatment.

1.Rational emotive behavioral therapy (REBT)

The rational emotive behavioral therapy is an action-oriented type of a cognitive behavioral therapy that concentrates on the present moment.

The therapy addresses unhealthy behaviors, emotions, and attitudes. REBT uses a “disputing” technique that helps people with claustrophobia develop healthy and realistic beliefs and prevent the fear from happening.

2.Cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT)

The cognitive behavioral therapy involves learning how to change and control negative thoughts, which occur during situations that cause your claustrophobia symptoms.

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By learning to alter your negative thoughts, you’re more likely to experience less fear. You can eventually learn how to alter your reaction to those situations.

3.Exposure therapy

Some claustrophobic people have reported that an exposure therapy helps them handle with their symptoms more effectively.

The therapy is usually used to treat different phobias and anxiety disorders. The exposure therapy involves placing a claustrophobic person in a non-dangerous situation that causes your claustrophobia.

This therapy helps to confront and deal with your biggest fear that triggers anxiety. The exposure therapy is overwhelming and exhausting, but it’s highly effective. The more you become exposed to claustrophobia, the less you might start fearing it.

4.Visualization and relaxation

A therapist might offer various visualization and relaxation techniques to treat claustrophobia.

The most common techniques include mental exercises such as picturing a safe space or counting down from 10. Visualization helps to calm your nerves down and relieve your panic. You may try this technique at home, but in severe cases it’s better to consult a therapist.

5.Medication treatment

Claustrophobia treatment doesn’t typically include medications, but there are situations when a doctor may prescribe an anti-anxiety medication or antidepressants to help treat the intense physical and panic symptoms.

The therapy is still required, though. Plus, it’s important to be careful with these medications as they cause addiction.

6.Observing therapy

You can compare this therapy with people watching. The observing therapy involves watching other people overcome their fears.

The aim of the therapy is to show a patient that they’re not alone and it’s possible to deal with any fear, including claustrophobia.

7.Complementary or alternative medicine

Some natural products and supplements can also help to treat claustrophobia. For instance, lavender oil or magnesium supplement may help you manage anxiety and panic. Talk to your therapist about it.

Claustrophobia can be treated and you can recover from it, albeit special treatment may be required.

Many people get rid of claustrophobia symptoms as they get older.

But if you can’t live an active and joyful life because of your fear, don’t hope for it to vanish when you are older. Turn to a specialist to undergo a therapy that will ease your burden and help you overcome your fear.