Claustrophobia – Conditions

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Overview

Claustrophobia is a form of anxiety disorder, in which an irrational fear of having no escape or being closed-in can lead to a panic attack. It is considered a specific phobia according to the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual 5 (DSM-5). The triggers of claustrophobia may include being inside an elevator, a small room without any windows, or even being on an airplane. If you experience claustrophobia, you may feel like you’re having a panic attack, although claustrophobia isn’t a panic condition. For some people, claustrophobia may disappear on its own. Others may need therapy to manage and cope with their symptoms.

Up to 5 percent of Americans may experience claustrophobia at some point in their lives. If you have felt anxious in the last 6 months about being in a confined space or crowded place, or you have avoided these situations, for this reason, it’s likely that you’re affected by claustrophobia.

Causes

Claustrophobia is often caused due to a traumatic childhood experience. Adults are more likely to get claustrophobic if as a child they were:

  • Trapped or kept in a confined space
  • Bullied or abused
  • Or they had a parent or caretaker who suffered from claustrophobia. 

Claustrophobia can also be triggered by unpleasant experiences or situations, such as turbulence when flying or being stuck in a tube tunnel between stations. A child growing up with a parent who has claustrophobia may develop claustrophobia themselves by associating confined spaces with their parent’s anxiety and feeling helpless to comfort the person they loved.

Symptoms

Claustrophobia is different for everyone. The anxiety can range from mild nervousness to a full-blown panic attack. For doctors to diagnose the anxiety as a phobia, it has to be serious enough to affect your ability to live a normal life. Being inside an enclosed space can trigger symptoms such as:

  • Shortness of breath
  • Fast heartbeat
  • Sweating
  • Shaking or trembling
  • Nausea
  • Dizziness
  • Dry mouth
  • Hot flashes
  • Hyperventilation
  • Chest tightness or pain
  • Confusion or disorientation
  • Headache
  • Numbness
  • Choking sensation
  • Urge to use the bathroom
  • Fear of harm or illness

Diagnosis

Your neurologist will ask about your symptoms and health history, and they’ll give you a physical exam. They’ll take into account any fear that may:

  • Be triggered by waiting for something to happen
  • Cause panic attacks linked to the situation that triggers fear
  • Make it hard for you to get through your day
  • Not be explained by other disorders

Treatment

Without treatment, you might find that you deal with claustrophobia by avoiding the object of your fear. You might stay away from tight places, taking the stairs instead of the elevator or walking instead of riding the subway. You might scan every crowded room for the exits or stand close to the door. Some people, if their anxiety is severe enough, maybe afraid to leave their homes.

Avoiding tight spaces won’t make your phobia go away. The first step in getting treatment is to see a neurologist. Several types of therapies can help to treat claustrophobia:

  • Exposure therapy: It gradually puts you into situations that frighten you to help you get over your fear. At first, you might just look at a photo of a tight space. Then, with your therapist’s help, you work up to being inside a tight space.
  • Cognitive-behavioral therapy (CBT): This is a type of talk therapy where you meet one-on-one with a trained therapist. You talk about the negative thoughts that drive your fear and learn ways to overcome them. You may get CBT alone or combined with exposure therapy.
  • Virtual reality (VR): This uses computer simulations of tight spaces like elevators or MRI machines. Getting the experience of a tight space in the virtual world can help you get over your fear in a setting that feels safe.
  • Relaxation and visualization: You can learn ways to calm your fear when you’re in a situation that usually scares you.
  • Medical treatment: If therapy isn’t enough, your doctor can prescribe anxiety drugs or antidepressants to help you deal with the situations that cause your fear.

When to See a Doctor?

If you’re so afraid of enclosed spaces that it affects your daily routine, get help from a mental health professional. You can see a psychologist, neurologist, or anxiety specialist. With the right treatment, you can learn how to control your response to situations you once feared.


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