What is Claustrophobia?

Many people suffer from claustrophobia and suffer issues with daily life as a result.

Most individuals are able to manage their symptoms effectively, but others become debilitated by the disorder and refuse to participate in activities which would expose them to the conditions that trigger the fear of enclosure.

Overview of claustrophobia

Claustrophobia is a condition that creates a fear of enclosure in a small room or tight space without an available exit. Many people who suffer from this debilitating condition are not able to ride in elevators or be in a small room with others. This is especially true of small rooms without windows or even a compact car. Some more severe conditions even prevent the sufferer from wearing constricting or tight fitting clothes.

Claustrophobia is a condition caused by many factors such as genetics and conditioning. In some cases, it is attributed to a shrinking of the amygdala. It usually falls into the category of an anxiety disorder, and generally is accompanied by other anxiety related symptoms.

Claustrophobia causes the sufferer to experience a medium to high level of anxiety due to exposure to a trigger. There are some individuals that have the condition in an extreme form and it can prevent them from leading a normal life. The most accurate estimations regarding the amount of the population that experience this disorder are anywhere from 5-7%. People who suffer from claustrophobia tend to avoid receiving treatment and suffer without the assistance of a professional.

Symptoms of Claustrophobia

The symptoms of claustrophobia stem from the individual being confined in a small space or room, such as a tiny basement, elevator, or a closet. The onset of claustrophobia includes the feeling of panic and the person may begin to display some physical symptoms in addition to their psychological symptoms. Triggered claustrophobia can feel much like a panic attack for the sufferer, however, it is not a panic attack, and can have intense and overwhelming characteristics.

Some of the other common symptoms that occur during a bout of claustrophobia include sweating, racing thoughts, increased heart rate, shaking, palpitations, hot flashes, tightness in the chest, nausea, lightheadedness, shortness of breath, and confusion.

The body’s functions tend to overtake the ability of the person to control them. Most people do not usually see their intense symptoms subside until after they are removed from the situation that triggered the episode. The episodes can happen in a variety of situations ranging from being in a crowded room to being stuck in traffic. Each person is different and responds to their condition in their own specific manner.

Claustrophobia Causes

Claustrophobia is triggered by a variety of circumstances and depends on the individual’s perception of the situation. Some instances trigger a more intense fear of suffocation or confinement than another situation. Some triggers may include crowded festivals, being in a crawl space, caves, narrow passages, a small dressing room, a revolving door, and many others. There has been mention that people begin to suffer the symptoms of claustrophobia when their personal space is invaded by people or objects. The amount of personal space an individual requires varies from person to person, but generally, starts around six feet and can go closer to the individual.

The exact cause of the condition is unknown, but many researchers and professionals notice the symptoms begin to develop later in childhood or in adolescent years. In many cases, the symptoms of claustrophobia begin to appear after an event that confined the person in a tight space or made them feel as though they were suffocating. This could be the result of being accidentally trapped in an area such as a closet, trunk, or other tight and confined space.

Other causes of claustrophobia include the emergence of panic disorder, social phobia that involves being around a large group of people, and general anxiety disorders. These disorders can create a situation that can blossom into claustrophobia, and, in turn, can trigger symptoms that develop into the disorder.

A person may also develop claustrophobia as a result of conditioning. If they were raised by people that experienced claustrophobia, they too may develop the condition as a learned behavior. This isn’t true in all cases, however, there is a greater chance of them developing fears and phobias of tight or confined spaces. Seeing loved ones react in such an extreme manner to certain conditions or situations can cause conditioning to similar environments.

Treatments for Claustrophobia

Treatment for claustrophobia usually consists of some type of psychotherapy to work through the individual’s issues and discuss fears in order to find coping mechanisms that are more productive and create less panic for people experiencing symptoms.

One method to treat the symptoms of the disorder is flooding. Flooding involves the patient being exposed to the triggers and conditions that elicit responses. The person administering the treatment will expose their patient to a scenario in which they are present and can monitor and discuss the feelings and physiological responses their patient is experiencing. The therapist will give them techniques they can use to cope with the situation and minimize fear and other extreme reactions to their environment.

Some individuals may develop a fear of treatment to overcome the symptoms if they realize they may be treated with the flooding method. It is important for the person to have a strong network of friends. In some cases, the therapist will request that someone close to the individual participates in the therapy session to increase the effectiveness and give the person a greater sense of security. This tactic may increase the productivity of the sessions with less dread and fear of flooding treatments.

If flooding techniques seem to cause too much fear with the patient, or it for some reason is impossible, there are other methods to treat the disorder. One such method is counter conditioning. Counter conditioning uses a variety of techniques to create a more calm response to the triggers. A therapist or psychologist will give the patient a variety of coping and relaxation techniques to use when they are exposed to a situation that creates the fears and responses associated with claustrophobia. The person can use those techniques to gradually begin to relax, which gives them the ability to face their irrational fears and eventually can create the ability for the person to be in situations that would normally trigger their responses without experiencing them at all.

Modelling is a technique that exposes the sufferer to a situation where they also witness another person confronting their own fears. The patient will then use what they see as a tool to confront their own fears. This technique gives them the ability to model their behavior after another person with similar issues and gives them the confidence to be able to overcome their own symptoms by viewing another person doing the same.

Cognitive behavior therapy allows the person to gradually experience situations and thoughts that eventually trigger the responses associated with claustrophobia. The therapist gradually guides the patient through their own thought processes and breaks them down to identify the type of thinking and situations that create the issues and responses to triggers.

Medication is also an option to help individuals cope with the effects of claustrophobia. Other treatments normally used in conjunction with the medication can produce optimal results. An antidepressant or a tranquilizer may take the edge off of the symptoms and allow the person to relax enough to manage the situation without a severe reaction.

Treatment times vary from person to person, but they generally take around 10 weeks of twice weekly sessions. Most therapy is effective in the short term, but for some with more severe cases, treatment may become an ongoing process that involves several techniques and experimentation with medications.

Claustrophobia Prevention

There is no specific way to prevent claustrophobia, however, the chances of developing the condition are minimized by controlling anxiety disorders already present in a person. Proactive treatment for existing conditions minimizes the chance of experiencing an anxiety inducing situation that can trigger bouts of claustrophobia. Although some individuals develop the condition as a result of incidents experienced without the presence of anxiety disorders, it is best to treat any potential causes before they become complicated by this additional disorder.

If you are an adult that suffers from claustrophobia, it is important to get therapy and treatment for the condition, especially if you have children. Children can develop the disorder from conditioning. If they are exposed to situations where they witness a parent or guardian experiencing symptoms of certain situations, they too may begin to develop the same condition. Minimize their exposure to the person experiencing the disorder once symptoms are triggered. The less exposure they have to a bout of claustrophobia, the less likely they will be to exhibit similar symptoms.

If you notice that you begin to develop claustrophobia symptoms, it is important to address the situation immediately before the disorder has a chance to progress. If you notice an episode for the first time, make sure you make an appointment to seek treatment and address the issue right away for the best outcome.

Claustrophobia is a complex form of anxiety and may develop as a result of a situation or previously present anxiety disorder. Many people suffer from it without seeking treatment, which can eventually cause debilitating symptoms that affect their ability to function daily. Treatment is necessary to stop the progression of symptoms and to help the patient deal with the sudden onset of a bout of claustrophobia. It is even possible for children to develop the disorder as a result of exposure to others, especially adults, that exhibit the hallmark symptoms.

There are a variety of treatments available, most of which include intense therapy sessions. If the patient is experiencing severe symptoms, the therapist may prescribe either an antidepressant or a tranquilizer to help them deal with the sudden onset of symptoms. The combination of therapy and medication is usually sufficient to help people get through situations where they may be exposed to triggers. The treatment process usually lasts for several weeks, however, each person is different and severe cases may require ongoing therapy and treatment to overcome the condition. The best way to avoid developing claustrophobia is to treat any underlying anxiety disorders before they trigger the condition.

Some situations are not preventable, but there are steps that people can take to minimize the risk of developing symptoms. The prognosis for claustrophobia is generally good. Most individuals are able to overcome the disorder in a short period of time with the proper treatment. It does not generally pose an extreme health risk unless the patient has other serious present health issues.


Last Reviewed:
September 25, 2017
Last Updated:
December 06, 2017