As part of our daily routine, we often find ourselves stuck in traffic, going through a revolving door, or trying on clothes in a dressing room. But what if these experiences cause crippling anxiety for you? Claustrophobia, the fear of being trapped in an enclosed space, is exacerbated in situations like these because of the overwhelming sense of helplessness and panic that results.

Claustrophobia is a common phobia that many struggle with. The severity and triggers of this anxiety disorder differ from person to person, but it affects everyone who has it. Thankfully, claustrophobia is a treatable condition and there are many treatment options to help you work through these challenges.

What Is Claustrophobia?

When someone has a severe fear of being trapped in an enclosed space, they are said to be suffering from claustrophobia. Anxiety and panic are common reactions for people who suffer from claustrophobia. When one feels unable to find a way out, these kinds of reactions are frequently elicited.

This phobia is a situational type of anxiety disorder, according to the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, 5th Edition. A phobia is diagnosable according to the DSM-5 when fear of a situation causes immediate anxiety and significant distress that is irrational and out of proportion for the danger posed. Individuals with a phobia will avoid triggering situations to an extent that impairs normal functioning. Phobias such as claustrophobia are also persistent, lasting 6 months or more. If an individual experiences these reactions to being in confined spaces, they could be diagnosed with claustrophobia if it’s unrelated to another mental illness.

Many types of small or crowded spaces trigger deep fear in someone with claustrophobia. A crowded elevator, being locked in a room with no windows, or driving down a highway are all examples of “trigger” situations, according to Talkspace therapist and anxiety management expert Bisma Anwar, LMHC. A person’s anxiety level can skyrocket in the event of an experience like this.

Claustrophobia is one of the most common fears, with close to 5 percent of the American population struggling with the disorder in varying degrees of severity. This phobia is more common among women than men, but it can be experienced by anyone, no matter their age, sex, or background. This phobia usually begins in childhood or adolescence.

Triggers of Panic Disorder

Many situations may trigger the onset of anxiety or a panic attack in someone claustrophobic. Anxiety attacks can be triggered by a variety of things, and each person’s unique set of triggers is different. Many people will go out of their way to avoid such triggers to limit their anxiety.

Spaces that may trigger claustrophobia:

  • Crowded elevators
  • Small cars, especially driving on a congested highway
  • Public transportation includes both buses and trains.
  • Turbulent air travel can be hazardous to aircraft.
  • Overcrowding
  • Tunnels
  • Basements and cellars
  • Small, windowless, or locked rooms
  • Revolving doors
  • An MRI or a CT scan
  • Car washing
  • Rooms for getting ready
  • Public restrooms
  • Closets

These spaces are encountered often in everyday life, which is why claustrophobia can be such a challenge to cope with. If you think you have claustrophobia, know that help is available and the condition is treatable.

Claustrophobia Signs and Symptoms

For people who suffer from claustrophobia, being in small, cramped spaces causes a great deal of distress. Anxiety and panic attacks usually include accelerated heart rate, difficulty breathing, and sweating, among other symptoms. Because of the debilitating and uncomfortable nature of many claustrophobia symptoms, this fear has the potential to significantly impair one’s quality of life.

Among the signs and symptoms of claustrophobia are:

  • Intense anxiety or panic attacks
  • Sweating
  • Intense physical exertion
  • Shaking
  • Have a feeling of dizziness
  • Nausea
  • Breathing problems
  • Hyperventilating
  • Fainting
  • Headache
  • Chest tightness
  • Confusion or disorientation

To mitigate these uncomfortable claustrophobic symptoms, individuals with this specific phobia often compulsively check the exits of a room, standing near them when possible. Someone with claustrophobia will go out of their way to avoid triggering places, such as choosing to take the stairs over an elevator, even if it is many flights. When given the choice, a sufferer of claustrophobia will choose open safe spaces to avoid the onset of these intense anxiety symptoms.

What Causes Claustrophobia?

Like many mental illnesses, the causes of claustrophobia are complex with a combination of environmental and genetic factors. Humans are wired for fear as a survival mechanism, but those who suffer from claustrophobia experience it to an extreme. This severe fear can be caused by a past traumatic experience such as abuse, being trapped in a small space, or experiencing bullying. These experiences increase anxiety when a person is confined, and potentially leading or exacerbating claustrophobia.

Claustrophobia can also be observed and learned from a parent or a fellow student. If you observe someone close to you who is afraid of enclosed spaces, you are more likely to learn this pattern and have this fear long-term. Those with a claustrophobic parent are more likely to become claustrophobic themselves.

When it comes to genetic causes, researchers connect claustrophobia to dysfunction of the amygdala, which is the brain’s centre for processing fear. People with claustrophobia tend to have a smaller amygdala, which plays a crucial role in causing anxiety, according to the 2009 study. Research published by the American Psychology Association also found that those with claustrophobia misjudge distances as closer than they actually are, which explains why they more readily perceive danger in enclosed or tight spaces.

Furthermore, a single gene known as GPM6A has been linked to claustrophobia in studies. According to a 2013 study, claustrophobia is caused by mutations in this stress-related gene. This finding may shed light on the genetic factors at play in the onset of claustrophobia, which is rarely as simple as one gene.

What Medical Procedures Are Used to Treat Claustrophobia?

Claustrophobia is a treatable condition, with many effective options available. Ninety percent of the time, treatment is successful; this is a treatable condition. Psychotherapy is one of the best treatment options for claustrophobia and there are multiple forms of therapy that are effective in treating this phobia.

“Cognitive Behavioral Therapy helps change negative thoughts and feelings that come from situations that trigger claustrophobia,” Anwar says. “Exposure therapy works by a person being put in a situation that is similar, but non-threatening, where they can confront their claustrophobia and cope with their fear. Anxiety-provoking scenarios can be pictured as part of a visualisation technique.

Types of therapy to treat claustrophobia

  • Cognitive behavioural therapy (CBT) — CBT is a tried and true method of treating anxiety disorders. A CBT therapist works one-on-one with a client to help them change their negative thinking patterns and the behaviours that go along with them. For claustrophobia, this looks like sessions where you work through the fear associated with confined spaces and look for ways to overcome it.
  • Exposure therapy — this is another effective method for treating claustrophobia. This type of therapy slowly exposes the client to their fear so that over time they feel less overwhelmed and controlled by it. Through repeated exposure to the phobia, you can become desensitised to the intense fear previously associated with the situation.
  • Visualization techniques — these techniques are also important for treating claustrophobia. This technique teaches the patient how to deal with their fears through the use of mental imagery. Visualizing a safe space while experiencing a panic attack can be a helpful technique. While in therapy, practising visualisation in order to cope with fear in the moment has been shown to be effective.

Medications for claustrophobia

In more severe cases of claustrophobia, medication can help alleviate the fear. Reduced internal emotional dysregulation can be achieved through the use of anti-anxiety or antidepressant medications. Depending on the individual, other natural supplements may be effective.

How to Deal with Phobia

When faced with a triggering situation, it is hard for someone who’s feeling claustrophobic to cope in the moment. If you’re afraid of being trapped in a confined or crowded space, there are strategies you can try. De-escalating anxiety that is brought on by a trigger can be achieved through the use of stress-reduction techniques.

How to deal with a fear of being suffocated

When anxiety levels rise, a therapist can show you how to use these strategies to your advantage. The following are some pointers to keep in mind:

  • Deep breathing exercises. Other methods include counting your breaths, feeling your breath in the abdomen, and doing exercises like square breathing.
  • Techniques of visualisation (as described above).
  • Counting practises, such as counting up or down by 7s.
  • Grounding techniques that help you stay present. Using your five senses, such as sight, sound, touch, smell, and taste, is one option.
  • Repeating a calming mantra to yourself, such as “This feeling will pass” or “I am safe.”

There are a slew of other techniques that can help you deal with anxiety when confronted with a difficult situation.

How to deal with a claustrophobia sufferer

It is scary to watch someone close to you deal with debilitating anxiety without knowing what to do. You may not be able to cure a loved one’s mental illness, but you can give them the support they need to get through their struggles. For someone who suffers from anxiety, just being there to listen and validate their feelings can mean the world. When they’re struggling to find a way out, helping them find treatment can be a lifeline.

If you or a loved one is dealing with claustrophobia, please seek out support from a licenced mental health professional. Claustrophobia can be overcome, and a life free of crippling anxiety is possible. Are you unsure of where to begin? Online therapy with licenced professionals is a great first step, and Talkspace is a great place to start. Get started on your journey towards healing today.

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