Definition

Claustrophobia is an anxiety disorder characterized by irrational fear of enclosed or small spaces. People with claustrophobia often describe it as feeling trapped without an exit or way out. Claustrophobia involves emotional and physical reactions to triggering situations. Though the fear of claustrophobia may be intense, with treatment it can be very well managed or overcome. Contact your doctor if you think you may have claustrophobia.

Common Physical Reaction to Triggering Situations

Physical reaction anxiety
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Causes

Like all phobias, the cause of claustrophobia is not well known, though it can run in families. The signs of claustrophobia usually develop early in life during childhood or the teenage years. Claustrophobia can disappear in adulthood. If it does not, treatment is usually necessary to overcome the fear, particularly if symptoms have severely limited work or social activities or tasks of daily living.

Risk Factors

The following factors are associated with an increased chance of developing claustrophobia or a claustrophobic anxiety attack.

  • A history of anxiety or nervousness when in an enclosed room or space
  • Continually avoiding situations that have brought on a previous anxiety attack; repeated avoidance may actually increase the chance of a claustrophobic attack and its severity.

Symptoms

Symptoms may include those typical of a panic attack :

  • Sweating
  • Rapid heart beat
  • Shortness of breath or hyperventilation
  • Trembling
  • Light-headedness or fainting
  • Nausea
  • Feelings of dread, terror, panic

Other signs of claustrophobia include:

  • Automatically and compulsively looking for exits when in a room or feeling fearful if doors are shut
  • Avoiding elevators, riding in subways or airplanes, or cars in heavy traffic
  • Standing near exits in crowded social situations

Note: If you experience any of these symptoms, do not assume it is due to claustrophobia. These symptoms may be caused by other health conditions, some of them potentially dangerous. If you experience any one of them, see your physician.

Diagnosis

Your doctor will ask about your symptoms and medical history, and perform a physical exam. You may be referred to a psychologist, psychiatrist, or other trained mental health practitioner for further evaluation and treatment.

Treatment

Talk with your doctor or mental health provider about the best treatment plan for you. Options include the following:

Psychotherapy

The most common type of treatment for claustrophobia involves mental health counseling targeted to overcoming the fear and managing triggering situations.

Different types of strategies include:

  • Relaxation and visualization techniques designed to calm the fear when in a claustrophobic environment
  • Cognitive-behavioral therapy (CBT) —an approach that involves learning to control the thoughts that occur when confronted with the fear-inducing situation in such a way as to change the reaction

Medication

Your doctor may prescribe drugs to control the panic and physical symptoms of claustrophobia. These include antidepressants and antianxiety agents. They will not cure the condition but are often very helpful when used together with psychotherapy.

Prevention

There are no known ways to prevent claustrophobia.