Those who suffer from claustrophobia always remember the first time they felt the hopeless sensation of being trapped or enclosed. It’s a feeling unlike any other — and one that can humble anyone in any situation. And whether you’ve experienced claustrophobia once or you deal with it every time you get on a crowded elevator, it’s important to come to terms with what it is, what causes it, and how it can be overcome.
What is Claustrophobia?
Simply put, claustrophobia is an anxiety disorder that involves an irrational fear of confined or enclosed spaces. When the perception of being confined exists, a claustrophobic individual may suffer from a minor or severe panic attack that persists until environmental factors change. Claustrophobia is the opposite of agoraphobia, the fear of open spaces.
Symptoms of Claustrophobia
Claustrophobia can involve two sets of symptoms. The first involves circumvention, when an individual attempts to avoid a situation that may lead to claustrophobia. For example, an individual in a small room may constantly check the exits to ensure they are not obstructed. Inside a vehicle, a person may prefer to sit next to a door and only travel when traffic is light. At a public gathering, the individual may stand near the door or avoid crowded restrooms.
These are all examples of the symptoms of avoidance. However, when circumstances actually lead to claustrophobia, an anxiety attack may result — leading to the following symptoms:
- Hyperventilating or rapid breathing
- Nausea and vomiting
- Rapid heartbeat
- Butterflies in the stomach
- Numbness and tingling
- Choking sensations
The symptoms of claustrophobia typically manifest themselves in crowded public places, elevators, tunnels, lines, underground trains or subways, airplanes, cars, basements, and closets.
Causes of Claustrophobia
Between 15 and 37 percent of people worldwide are believed to suffer from claustrophobia, so it’s challenging to pinpoint the exact cause. Here are some of the theories:
- Generalized anxiety disorder.
Many psychologists believe claustrophobia stems from generalized anxiety disorder. This is entirely possible, as claustrophobia is an anxiety-related disorder.
- Social phobia.
Some believe that social phobia plays a role in claustrophobia because sufferers feel the need to escape. It’s not likely that social phobia is the only cause, but it could certainly play a part in claustrophobia’s development.
- Panic disorder.
People with severe cases of claustrophobia often exhibit signs of panic disorder. It just happens to shine through in the form of claustrophobia on an occasional basis.
- Dormant survival mechanism.
One theory suggests that claustrophobia is a survival instinct that’s intrinsically buried within our genetic code. It was once useful, but no longer has any value. A team of German and British researchers believes claustrophobia is the result of a single gene defect.
- Smaller amygdalae.
The amygdala is a tiny part of the brain that’s used to control the way in which the human body processes fear. One study suggests that people with panic disorders have smaller amygdalae than the average person. It’s believed that this size differential may interfere with how the brain processes fear and the perception of danger.
Tips for Controlling and Overcoming Claustrophobia While it’s interesting to study possible causes of claustrophobia, it’s more practical for the average person to learn about how they can control and overcome this debilitating anxiety disorder. Here are some helpful tips for controlling the terrifying symptoms of claustrophobia:
One common and nonintrusive method of treatment involves watching others and mimicking how they deal with similar situations. This is known as modeling and is used to instill confidence. Unfortunately, it’s usually only effective in minor cases.
Cognitive behavior therapy (CBT) forces the person to confront the specific thoughts and attitudes they’re dealing with and purposefully change them. This occurs by gradually exposing the individual to claustrophobic environments until they stop feeling threatened by them.
This form of treatment involves overexposing the individual to the phobic trigger until the anxiety attack passes. Once the person overcomes the anxiety, the hope is that they’ll realize the threat is only in their mind.
- Relaxation techniques.
Many individuals are able to find relief by honing relaxation techniques such as deep breathing and progressive muscle relaxation. These techniques can then be utilized in claustrophobic situations.
- Drug therapy.
Sometimes the only option is medication or drug therapy. Antidepressants and tranquilizers can be used in conjunction with psychological treatment. Drug therapy should be a last resort. Individuals shouldn’t stop other forms of therapy.
Ultimately, claustrophobia is a treatable anxiety disorder that people can overcome with long-term therapy. If you suffer from claustrophobia, it’s important that you do something about it sooner rather than later. Left untreated, the symptoms may be exacerbated.
Elevator photo available from Shutterstock