Claustrophobia Overview

Claustrophobia is a psychological condition characterized by unbearable anxiety in enclosed or physically restrictive spaces. Claustrophobia can occur in spaces such as very small rooms, elevators, and crowded places. The prevalence of severe claustrophobia is estimated to be as high as 4% in the general population, and many more experience milder symptoms.

Sufferers of claustrophobia often, but not always, have a belief that they will not be able to breathe in the enclosed space.

Claustrophobia is generally an irrational fear, in that the sufferers know they are not in any danger at the time they are feeling the anxiety. In people who have claustrophobia, being in a triggering situation activates the amygdala, the fight- or flight-center of the brain.

Symptoms can range from mild sweating or shaking to chest pain, shortness of breath, or even fainting.

Image Credit: Sergey Nivens / Shutterstock
Image Credit: Sergey Nivens / Shutterstock

Claustrophobia Triggers

A variety of situations can trigger claustrophobia. Some examples include:

  1. elevators
  2. tunnels
  3. trains
  4. revolving doors
  5. cars
  6. changing rooms
  7. hotel rooms with sealed windows
  8. airplanes
  9. MRI scans

Classical conditioning is one potential origin of claustrophobia. In classical conditioning, the brain learns to connect the trigger--confinement--with danger. This often happens in childhood. For example, if the child is shut in a dark closet, or trapped in a small space, they may develop claustrophobia. Some scientists speculate that claustrophobia may be due to a traumatic birth.

Claustrophobia, however, may also be a prepared phobia, meaning that it is one of the fears the human brain is primed for. Fears in this category are things that may be dangerous. Susceptibility to claustrophobia may have helped humans survive during their evolution.

Treatment

Treatments for claustrophobia include cognitive therapy and exposure therapy.

Cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) is very commonly used for anxiety disorders. Its goal is to change distorted thought patterns related to the fear. As the thoughts are modified, episodes of anxiety decrease.

In exposure therapy, patients are progressively exposed to their fears with the goal of desensitizing the fear reactions. Exposure therapy is based on the observation that humans experience less anxiety when exposed repeatedly over a long period to a fear trigger.

Panic Attack

Claustrophobia can trigger a panic attack. If you experience a panic attack due to claustrophobia, first take steps to ensure safety. If you are driving, pull over and park. Focus on non-threatening thoughts. A panic attack can last up to an hour, but symptoms usually peak within 10 minutes.

Claustrophobia and Anxiety

Technically, claustrophobia is a symptom of an anxiety disorder, rather than its own distinct disorder. Most people who develop claustrophobia already have anxiety. Some types of anxiety disorders that can lead to claustrophobia include generalized anxiety disorder, panic disorder, and social phobia.

MRI Scanners

Because magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) scans are an important medical test, and because they are also a frequent trigger for claustrophobia, many hospitals have invested in open MRI scanners that have a gap at the front. Open MRI scanners can also accommodate larger patients who would not fit into a conventional scanner.

Reviewed by Liji Thomas, MD

Sources

  1. Near space and its relation to claustrophobic fear, https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/21396630
  2. Fears, phobias, and preparedness: toward an evolved module of fear and fear learning, https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/11488376
  3. Claustrophobia and the fear of death and dying, http://primal-page.com/claus.htm
  4. Calm Clinic, Claustrophobia and anxiety: causes and solution, https://www.calmclinic.com/anxiety/symptoms/claustrophobia
  5. NHS, Claustrophobia, https://www.calmclinic.com/anxiety/symptoms/claustrophobia

Further Reading

Last Updated: Dec 4, 2017

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