Claustrophobia is the irrational fear of confined spaces. It affects about 10% of the UK population.
Some people with claustrophobia only react with mild anxiety when in a confined space, while others experience severe anxiety or have a [panic attack].
Many things can trigger this anxiety, including:
- tube trains
- revolving doors
- public toilets
- MRI scanners
- cars with central locking
- car washes
- changing rooms in shops
- hotel rooms with sealed windows
If you have felt anxious during the last six months about being in a confined space or crowded place, or if you have avoided confined spaces and crowded places for this reason, it is likely that you are affected by claustrophobia.
Panic attacks are common among people with claustrophobia. They can be very frightening and distressing and symptoms often occur without warning.
As well as overwhelming feelings of anxiety, a panic attack can also cause:
- hot flushes or chills
- shortness of breath or difficulty breathing
- a choking sensation
- rapid heartbeat
- chest pain or a feeling of tightness in the chest
- a sensation of butterflies in the stomach
- headaches and dizziness
- feeling faint
- numbness or pins and needles
- dry mouth
- a need to go to the toilet
- ringing in your ears
- feeling confused or disorientated
People with severe claustrophobia may also experience psychological symptoms such as:
- fear of losing control
- fear of fainting
- feelings of dread
- fear of dying
Most people with a phobia are fully aware that they have one. Many people live with claustrophobia without having it formally diagnosed and take great care to avoid confined spaces.
However, getting help from your doctor and a specialist with expertise in behavioural therapy, such as a psychologist, can often be beneficial.
Claustrophobia can be successfully treated and cured by gradually being exposed to the situation that causes your fear. This is known as desensitisation or self-exposure therapy. You could try this yourself (read some self-help techniques), or with the help of a professional.
Cognitive behavioural therapy (CBT) is often very effective for people with phobias. CBT is a type of counselling that explores your thoughts, feelings and behaviour in order to develop practical ways of effectively dealing with the phobia.
Coping with a panic attack
If possible, you should stay where you are during a panic attack. The panic attack could last up to an hour, so, if you are driving, you may need to pull over and park where it is safe to do so. Do not rush to a place of safety.
During the attack, remind yourself that the frightening thoughts and sensations are a sign of panic and will eventually pass. Focus on something that is non-threatening and visible, such as the time passing on your watch, or items in a supermarket.
The symptoms of a panic attack normally peak within 10 minutes and most attacks will last between five minutes and half an hour.
Read more advice about coping with a panic attack.
What causes claustrophobia?
Many cases of claustrophobia are caused by a traumatic event experienced early in childhood. For example, if you were trapped in a confined space as a young child, you may develop claustrophobia as an adult.
Sometimes, children with a parent who had claustrophobia may become claustrophobic themselves, by associating confined spaces with the adult's anxiety and with feeling helpless to comfort the person they loved.