Claustrophobia: the Fear of Being Trapped

Man in small space hugging selfMost people have experienced brief periods of anxiety while riding in an elevator, stuck in the midst of a large and tight crowd, or even while playing hide-and-seek. But for people with claustrophobia, the fear of being trapped in a small space can be so debilitating that it interferes with regular life activities.

In fact, the distinction between “normal” anxiety about enclosed spaces and phobic-level fear is the fact claustrophobia tends to interfere with life activities such as climbing a stairwell or riding in an elevator for work, playing with one’s children, or going to certain locations.

What Is It?
Claustrophobia is categorized by a chronic and unreasonable fear of being trapped in a small or enclosed space with no hope of escape, and it is classified as an anxiety disorder. People with claustrophobia also frequently experience a related fear of suffocation. Being in a small space can cause people with the issue to fear that they won’t be able to breathe, and for this reason, people with claustrophobia sometimes experience fear in settings that don’t seem enclosed or frightening. For example, a person with claustrophobia sitting in a dentist’s chair might be so afraid of confinement that the person becomes convinced that he or she will suffocate if he/she remains in the chair. People with the issue may experience extreme anxiety, panic attacks, difficulty breathing, profuse sweating, and difficulty concentrating when they are in a small space.

People with claustrophobia tend to experience anxious reactions in a variety of settings rather than just one particularly frightening setting. For this reason, claustrophobia tends to become generalized and may worsen over time. A person who was once afraid of elevators might generalize his or her fears to closets, apartments, doctor’s offices, and small stores. In extreme cases, people with claustrophobia may be so afraid of confinement that they refuse to leave their homes or travel to unfamiliar locations.

What Causes It?
Claustrophobia is one of the most common phobias, with about 5% of the population experiencing it to one degree or another. Some scientists believe that this indicates an evolved, genetic fear of closed spaces. The reasoning for this explanation is that being trapped in a small space can be dangerous, so the brain has evolved a special fear of these situations to prevent people from taking potentially life-threatening risks. However, there is also evidence that claustrophobia is learned. People who have been trapped in a small space—such as people who were trapped in an elevator or who were locked in their bedrooms as children—are more likely to become claustrophobic, and children of people with claustrophobia are more likely to become claustrophobic. This is probably due to a combination of genetics and parental modeling.

How Is It Treated?
Although phobias can be debilitating, they are generally fairly easy to treat. Counter-conditioning and exposure therapy work by gradually exposing people with claustrophobia to triggering circumstances to help them build a tolerance and learn coping mechanisms for their fears. People with mild claustrophobia sometimes benefit from deep-breathing techniques and distracting thoughts, and people with severe claustrophobia may take anti-anxiety medications to help them function until therapy can help them address the underlying causes of the phobia. Some people with claustrophobia also benefit from cognitive behavioral therapy, which helps them identify the negative thoughts that lead to fear-based reactions and to slowly adjust these thoughts to more positive, less fear-inducing ones.

References:

  1. Claustrophobia. (n.d.). Epigee. Retrieved from http://www.epigee.org/mental_health/claustrophobia.html
  2. Kahn, A. P., & Doctor, R. M. (2000). Facing fears: The sourcebook for phobias, fears, and anxieties. New York, NY: Checkmark Books.

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  • Amy

    Amy

    January 14th, 2013 at 4:11 AM

    It is just that feeling of being trapped and not able to breathe that can leave you feeling so hopeless! I feel this way anytime there is a crowd that surges around me and I just have to run to get away and get some air. I even feel that way in church sometimes if it is really crowded! I have never asked for help because I always think that I should be bale to control this myself but I am not so sure now.

  • Monti

    Monti

    January 16th, 2013 at 11:26 AM

    I went through a bout of claustrophobia awhile ago. It only lasted a couple of months, but it was pretty scary. It was like whenever I was inside with a roof over my head, I started to panic. Fortunately, I was able to keep it under wraps and tell myself I was okay. So, it wasn’t really full blown. But, I can see how it could keep you from doing things you want to do like flying on an airplane, being on a cruise ship, etc.

  • Naomi

    Naomi

    January 16th, 2013 at 11:33 AM

    I can see how you can pass it on to your kids. My kid didn’t have any problems at all in that area. that is until she went to see my brother who does. Now she won’t go into any small space. Thanks, Uncle Bryson. Thanks.

  • Oscar

    Oscar

    January 16th, 2013 at 11:40 AM

    It is good to hear that the treatment for this disorder is relatively uncomplicated. Issues like this are often seen as something people can just “get over” which couldn’t be farther from the truth. I am glad to see that people are putting time, effort, and resources towards overcoming and conquering claustrophobia.

  • Pete

    Pete

    January 16th, 2013 at 11:44 AM

    i hate small spaces but i don’t think i’m claustrophobic cuz it doesn’t keep me from doing stuff i want to do.

  • Brenda

    Brenda

    February 24th, 2016 at 4:32 AM

    I was kidnapped by a fatal attraction in 1993 for three months by a monster. He would suffocate me continuously and stuff my face on the corner of the couch and sit on me. He broke my neck in three places, broke my jaw and cracked six teeth. I was lucky to escape with my life. I just last week for my neck worked on it because of this. They removed a disk and used my own hip bone to put in its place, fused my neck and put a plate with four screws on it. I was doing great until the nurse had my legs tied up to put air wraps on my legs to stop from getting blood clots. I had neck brace on, rails were up on the bed and put my food tray in the bed. I freaked out pushed the food tray out of the way started crying uncontrollably and had a panic attack. I told them I need to eat at the table. My poor husband was explaining to the nurses that I hate anything around my neck too. Will I ever get over the abuse. They gave me Valium with my pain pills. It seems to help.

  • Keira

    Keira

    May 24th, 2017 at 2:49 AM

    Oh Brenda, I totally feel for you. Thank God you survived. You lived my worst fear. I hope that bastard is burning in prison for what he did to you. I pray your life has become better over this past year. I became claustrophobic after a man I was engaged to got mad at me one evening. I didn’t make dinner that night because I had worked overtime, I was tired so he got angry about it. I was laying on the couch, watching a movie. He came over to me, pinned me down tight under the throw blanket I was using. I weigh 115 lbs, he weighed 210 lbs. He held me there for almost 10 minutes while I screamed and cried. I think he thought I might have a heart attack because he finally got off me. I jumped up, grabbed my cell phone and called the police. The police came, I told them what happened. I had two large red bruises on my arm so they arrested him for domestic violence. We of course broke up. He was shocked they took him to jail. While he was gone, I packed my stuff and left. A year later he begged me to come back. There was no way I’d ever return to him. Since then, I have never told another man that I have claustrophobia out of fear he’ll use it against me. I have trouble having standard sex now, I don’t like to cuddle as before. I like having my own room, I don’t want to be married now. That (ex) of mine really messed me up mentally. It was the worse fear I ever experienced. I came to this site tonight because I met a new guy. I know he’ll want to snuggle and have sex. I just don’t know how I’ll go through with it. How do I tell him? What reason do I give? This condition is very difficult. I don’t want to end up alone but it’s starting to look that way.

  • Sharon t.

    Sharon t.

    October 26th, 2017 at 10:38 PM

    I remember when I was 5year old I was playing in my grandma backyard I got trapped on the swings I couldn’t get off. Now am 55year old. I get on elevators but I hope it don’t get stuck. I scared to fly on planes. Because I do not like to feel close in. I wish I didn’t have clautroh. I wish I can enjoy life like a normal person.

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