Phobias – Claustrophobia

22 January, 2019

Most people with phobias are fully aware that they have a phobia, yet have no control over their reactions when faced with their self-made-monster. Simply put, phobias are excessive fears of something, a type of abnormal anxiety disorder that rules the mind. People who have phobias usually go to great lengths to avoid getting in certain situations or being close to certain objects or animals. Coming in contact with the feared situation can create significant distress on the person triggering a panic attack.

The onset of phobias is usually around the age of 10-17, with the rates getting lower as people age. Such people are also found to be more prone to suicides. Phobias can be divided into three specific types – specific phobias, agoraphobia and social phobia. Specific phobias can be towards certain animals, blood, natural environmental situations or specific situations. Treatment for specific phobias should be by exposure therapy where the person is exposed to the source of phobia until the fear is finally resolved. For agoraphobia and social phobia, medications and anti-depressants along with counseling are usually effective.

The commonest type of specific phobia is claustrophobia. It’s a situational phobia that’s triggered by an irrational, intense fear of being enclosed in small or crowded spaces. Examples include windowless rooms, crowded elevators, congested road tunnels or even an MRI or CT scan machine! Experiencing claustrophobia is like having a panic attack, which is not exactly a nice place to be in. For some people, the claustrophobia may disappear on its own, while in others, it might need professional help.


The symptoms appear after being confined in a small space are similar to a panic attack and include trembling, shortness of breath, hyperventilation, tightness in the chest or pain in the chest, hot flashes, anxiety, intense fear or panic and feeling faint, lightheaded or disoriented.
Some people can have some or all of the symptoms depending on the trigger. People who have claustrophobia should choose to stand near exits, should avoid triggering situations and stop looking for exits in every place they enter. Small rooms, closets, public restrooms, store dressing rooms, caves or tunnels can also trigger off claustrophobic attacks. Each person has their own definition of personal space and once that is breached, it triggers panic.


Little is known about the causes of claustrophobia; it could have something to do with dysfunction of the amygdala, the part of the human brain that deals with how we process fear. But it could also have something to do with a traumatic experience the person experiences during the young formative years. Fear of a situation can also be learned from others. A child, who has watched a parent undergoing a claustrophobic pain attack in an enclosed space, may unconsciously learn the same too. Most phobias develop during early childhood and only about 20% of specific phobias go away on their own without treatment.


Psychotherapy is the cornerstone of treatment for claustrophobia. Treatment involves cognitive behavioral therapy called systemic desensitization or exposure and response prevention (ERP) therapy where the patient is gradually exposed to their source of fear in a phased manner until the point where their fear begins to dissipate away. Relaxation techniques such as deep breathing or meditation may also help in reducing anxiety symptoms.
For most people, these are enough to treat claustrophobia.