Claustrophobia

Health Writer

Claustrophobia is the fear of being in a small or enclosed space. Claustrophobia is classified as a specific phobia, which is a type of anxiety disorder. A specific phobia is an irrational or unreasonable fear of an object or a situation. Specific phobias can trigger panic or anxiety attacks when the situation or fear is confronted and can interfere with daily life and overall functioning.

Causes

Claustrophobia often develops as the result of an experience in childhood or a traumatic event of being trapped in a small place or from an unpleasant or frightening experience where you were in a confined space and could not get out. Sometimes, a person will experience a panic attack during this experience. The panic and the experience become one and future situations in closed environments are looked upon with dread and fear.

Symptoms

The symptoms of claustrophobia are the same as those experienced during any panic attack:

  • Heart palpitations or rapid heartbeat
  • Nausea
  • Lightheadedness, dizziness, fainting
  • Shaking or trembling
  • Hyperventilation
  • Sweating
  • Headache
  • Chest pain

As with all panic attacks, these feeling can be accompanied by the feeling that you are going to die or that you are going crazy.

Often, people with claustrophobia will incorporate strategies into their daily lives to help them cope with or prevent panic attacks from happening:

  • People may always take stairs, avoiding elevators, even if they need to go to the 20th floor of a building.
  • At a party or in a crowded room, someone may stay close to the exit, missing any activities situated away from the room, even if it means foregoing eating or talking with friends sitting elsewhere.

  • Avoiding situations where they must be in a room with closed doors. A person with claustrophobia may always check where exits are when they enter a room.

  • Sitting in a car or other mode of transportation. They may take only short trips, not being able to sit for any period of time inside a vehicle. They may plan trips to avoid sitting in traffic or keep the windows of the car wide open, even in inclement weather.

  • Avoiding air travel and opting instead to drive places or to avoid trips that require air travel.

As the claustrophobia goes untreated, more and more situations may be avoided. The fear of having a panic attack can be overwhelming and some people with claustrophobia severely limit their activities and social interactions to make sure they do not place themselves in situations that may invoke a panic attack.

Treatment

Treatment for claustrophobia is the same as for other types of anxiety and can include relaxation therapy, cognitive behavioral therapy and medication as well as learning self help strategies.

Medication

Antidepressant medication is one of the most common prescription medication used to treat anxiety disorders. Medications known as beta-blockers may also be used to reduce specific symptoms, such as heart palpitations.

Therapy

Therapy can help a person by teaching relaxation strategies for coping with symptoms. In addition therapy is used to learn about personal triggers and situations that can cause an anxiety attack to occur. Therapy also works on trying to change thought processes.

Cognitive Behavioral Therapy

This type of therapy often uses exposure therapy to help someone deal with stressful situations by gradually placing them in places that may cause a panic attack. This is done in a controlled environment, where the person feels safe. Once they have gone through one stage, they will be introduced to the next stage, allowing them to slowly readjust to stressful situations.

Self Help

  • Learning relaxation techniques to help cope with anxiety symptoms.

  • Understanding anxiety disorders

  • Learning your personal triggers and understanding how you react to situations

  • Joining support groups

Treatment is available. According to the Better Health Channel, treatment for claustrophobia normally lasts between eight to ten weeks, with two sessions per week. If you are experiencing problems due to claustrophobia, there is help available.

References:

"Claustrophobia", 2007, Oct, Author Unknown, Better Health Channel, State of Victoria, Australia

"What is Claustrophobia?". 2006, Feb 3, Christian Nordqvist, Medical News Today

"Claustrophobia", 2008, Author Unknown, Epigee.org