Scared man holding head in elevatorClaustrophobia is an extreme, irrational fear of small spaces, particularly of being trapped in small spaces. People with claustrophobia may have panic attacks if trapped in a small space, and may actively avoid situations that could activate claustrophobia.

What Are the Symptoms of Claustrophobia?

The primary symptoms of claustrophobia are fear and panic associated with small, enclosed spaces in conjunction with a desire to avoid such spaces. Most people with claustrophobia are especially frightened by unfamiliar small spaces. For example, a person with claustrophobia might not be afraid of sitting in his or her own closet, but traveling in an elevator could be terrifying. People with claustrophobia might also be afraid of some small spaces but not others. For example, a small car might feel safe, while an elevator could activate a panic attack. Claustrophobia is one of the most common phobias and often co-occurs with anxiety and other phobias.

What Causes Claustrophobia?

Diagnosis of claustrophobia is made based on the expressed symptoms of the person. The precise cause of claustrophobia is unknown, but there appear to be several factors that increase the likelihood of developing claustrophobia. These include:

  • Family members with a history of claustrophobia or other phobias. This may be due to early exposure to fear of small spaces, but could also indicate that phobias have a genetic basis.
  • Traumatic experience such as being trapped in a car or locked in a closet.
  • A diagnosis of an anxiety disorder.
  • Witnessing frightening encounters with closed spaces, such as movies in which a person is buried alive. 

Is There Treatment for Claustrophobia?

Claustrophobia, like most phobias, responds fairly well to treatment. Cognitive behavioral therapy and desensitization can be especially helpful. In cases of extreme claustrophobia, anti-anxiety medications such as Xanax can help reduce the symptoms enough to begin treatment and desensitization. Some people with phobias undergo hypnotherapy to reduce their phobic reactions, and a few sessions with a hypnotherapist can be highly effective in many patients with phobias.


  1. American Psychological Association. (2009). APA concise dictionary of psychology. Washington, DC: American Psychological Association.
  2. Colman, A. M. (2006). Oxford dictionary of psychology. New York, NY: Oxford University Press.

Last Updated: 08-4-2015

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