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. The fear of claustrophobia may be intense, but treatment can help manage or overcome it.
Like all phobias, the cause of claustrophobia is not well known. 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. It may limit work or social activities or tasks of daily living.
Risk factors that increase your chance of developing claustrophobia or a claustrophobic anxiety attack include:
- 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 may include those typical of a panic attack :
- Rapid heart beat
- Shortness of breath or hyperventilation
- Light-headedness or fainting
- 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
Your doctor will ask about your symptoms and medical history. A physical exam will be done. You may be referred to a psychologist, psychiatrist, or other trained mental health provider.
Talk with your doctor or mental health provider about the best treatment plan for you. Options include the following:
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 order to change the reaction
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 helpful when used with psychotherapy.
- Reviewer: Brian Randall, MD
- Review Date: 09/2012 -
- Update Date: 01/31/2013 -