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Aug 20, 2021
3 min read

Claustrophobia: causes, diagnosis, and treatment

Claustrophobia is an intense fear of enclosed spaces. Tight spaces and crowded rooms can cause anxiety or even panic attacks, leading a person with this condition to avoid certain places altogether.

Disclaimer

If you have any medical questions or concerns, please talk to your healthcare provider. The articles on Health Guide are underpinned by peer-reviewed research and information drawn from medical societies and governmental agencies. However, they are not a substitute for professional medical advice, diagnosis, or treatment.

The thought of being trapped in a confined space is an unpleasant one for most people. Yet, for some, spending time in a crowded room or even an elevator can cause panic. This condition is called claustrophobia.

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What is claustrophobia?

Claustrophobia is the intense fear of enclosed spaces. It can also be a fear of what might happen in an enclosed space. 

Claustrophobia is a type of specific phobia, a medical condition characterized by extreme fear of certain situations, things, or activities. There are some classic examples of things that can trigger claustrophobia, which we’ll look at below.

What triggers claustrophobia

People who experience claustrophobia have varied triggers, but here are some common ones (Radomsky, 2001):

  • Small rooms
  • Elevators
  • Subway trains
  • Tunnels
  • Crowded spaces
  • MRI machines––a tube-shaped device used for medical scans that requires you to lay very still for an extended period of time

Signs and symptoms of claustrophobia

Suppose you find small spaces unpleasant. Being in one might make it hard for you to breathe or make your palms a little sweaty. How can you tell if that’s a typical reaction or claustrophobia? 

Generally speaking, a phobia is an extreme fear, meaning it interferes with day-to-day life. Concerning claustrophobia, this might include opting to walk up 10 flights of stairs every day to avoid taking the elevator. 

In situations where you’re faced with a trigger, you might experience symptoms similar to a panic attack, including (Vadakka, 2021):

  • Difficulty breathing and shortness of breath
  • Shaking
  • Sweating
  • Fast heart rate
  • Dry mouth
  • Chest pain
  • Feelings of anxiety
  • A need to leave the situation or space you’re in

You might even understand that your fears are irrational, but you’ll likely need more than just deep breaths to overcome them. 

Claustrophobia test

There’s no specific test for diagnosing claustrophobia. To diagnose the condition, a healthcare professional will likely ask you a series of questions about your symptoms, as well as when and how frequently they occur. 

There is a questionnaire they may ask you to answer that includes a series of situations and places, such as working under a sink for 15 minutes or being on a crowded train. You’ll be asked to pick a number rating how anxious you’d feel, from not at all anxious to extremely anxious (Radomsky, 2001). 

Examples of claustrophobia questionnaires are available online if you’re interested in looking. Keep in mind that it’s not meant to be a diagnosis tool, and your score might not carry much meaning without the guidance and insight of an experienced mental healthcare professional.

If you decide to seek treatment, your therapist might use a similar questionnaire or grading system to monitor your treatment.

Treatment of claustrophobia

Cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) is the most common form of treatment for specific phobias like claustrophobia.

With CBT, you and a therapist will discuss your feelings about enclosed spaces and what might happen in them. Your therapist will use this information to help you reorient your fears and alleviate panic around these situations (Vadakka, 2021).

Other options are on the table for specific situations. If you have an extreme fear of MRI machines but need to have a scan, a clinician might prescribe medication like benzodiazepines to be used just during the test.

These medications aren’t a good option for regular treatment as they’re strong sedatives and can be extremely habit-forming.  

How to deal with claustrophobia

If you have claustrophobia, you’ve likely found a way to avoid tight spaces and other possible triggers. While this works as a short-term fix, it might make your anxiety or fears worse in the long run.

If you’re getting help from a mental health professional, part of your therapy may include relaxation techniques you can deploy when faced with a trigger. As we mentioned, deep breathing is one method. Practice inhaling for four seconds through your nose and exhaling through your mouth for six seconds and see how you feel after (Shiban, 2017). 

While claustrophobia may be limiting you, know that treatment works. Speak with a healthcare professional about your options. 

References

  1. Radomsky, A. S., Rachman, S., Thordarson, D. S., McIsaac, H. K., & Teachman, B. A. (2001). The Claustrophobia Questionnaire. Journal of Anxiety Disorders, 15(4), 287–297. doi:10.1016/s0887-6185(01)00064-0. Retrieved from https://sci-hub.do/10.1016/s0887-6185(01)00064-0
  2. Rahani, V. K., Vard, A., & Najafi, M. (2018). Claustrophobia Game: Design and Development of a New Virtual Reality Game for Treatment of Claustrophobia. Journal of Medical Signals and Sensors, 8(4), 231–237. doi: 10.4103/jmss.JMSS_27_18. Retrieved from https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/30603615/
  3. Shiban, Y., Diemer, J., Müller, J., Brütting-Schick, J., Pauli, P., & Mühlberger, A. (2017). Diaphragmatic breathing during virtual reality exposure therapy for aviophobia: functional coping strategy or avoidance behavior? a pilot study. BMC Psychiatry, 17(1), 29. doi: 10.1186/s12888-016-1181-2. Retrieved from https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/28100203/
  4. Vadakkan, C., & Siddiqui, W. (2021). Claustrophobia. In StatPearls. StatPearls Publishing. Retrieved from https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/31194467/