A woman stands on the other side of a rectangular opening in a colored wall.
Claustrophobia is commonly triggered by enclosed spaces.Klaus Vedfelt/Getty Images
  • Claustrophobia causes symptoms like trembling, sweating, and nausea when you're in a small space.
  • It can be triggered by elevators, airplanes, tunnels, windowless rooms, and more.
  • To treat claustrophobia, you can try methods like exposure therapy, CBT, and medications.
  • Visit Insider's Health Reference library for more advice.

Have you ever been in a small enclosed space and felt extremely panicked? Maybe your heart was racing and you were short of breath. 

If so, you may have claustrophobia, an intense and irrational fear of confined spaces. This phobia is relatively common, affecting about 12.5% of the population. 

However, there are ways to overcome your fear. Here's how to tell if you have claustrophobia, what might be causing it, and how to treat it.

Symptoms of claustrophobia

A phobia is an anxiety disorder that makes you fear a specific object or situation — in the case of claustrophobia, the trigger is enclosed spaces, says Yalda Safai, MD, a psychiatrist in private practice.

"Individuals with claustrophobia experience heightened anxiety whenever they encounter these scenarios and frequently make efforts to try to avoid situations where they may be triggered," says Ben Eckstein, LCSW, founder and therapist of Bull City Anxiety

The fear is considered to be irrational, since the intensity of it is disproportionate to the actual risk of the situation. Eckstein says that many claustrophobic people don't necessarily find the small space itself scary, rather, it's the awareness that it could be difficult to escape that makes them feel trapped and anxious.

Eckstein says some common examples of enclosed spaces that could trigger a feeling of claustrophobia are:

  • Elevators
  • Airplanes
  • Tunnels
  • Driving over bridges
  • Windowless rooms
  • Being stuck in traffic
  • MRI machines

Aside from intense fear and avoidance, the symptoms of claustrophobia are largely physiological. Safai says the symptoms of claustrophobia are similar to a panic attack, such as:

  • Shortness of breath
  • Racing heart
  • Trembling
  • Sweating
  • Chest pain
  • Dizziness
  • Nausea 
  • Numbness or tingling 
  • Derealization (feelings of unreality)
  • Depersonalization (being detached from oneself)
  • Fear of losing control or "going crazy"

Additionally, Eckstein says most people with claustrophobia also struggle with general anxiety, and they are more likely to experience co-occurring anxiety disorders and other types of phobias. 

Causes of claustrophobia

There isn't a known singular cause for claustrophobia. Sometimes, there is no clear reason why someone is claustrophobic. However, some possible causes are:

  • Experiencing a traumatic event: Some individuals can pinpoint the onset of their claustrophobia to a specific event such as being trapped in an elevator, having a panic attack on an airplane, or even seeing a news story about a bridge that collapsed, Eckstein says. This experience sticks with them and causes an irrational fear.
  • Family history of claustrophobia: You may be more likely to have claustrophobia if a family member has claustrophobia, which suggests there may be both genetic and learned elements to developing claustrophobia, says Eckstein.
  • Having anxiety: People with claustrophobia may experience higher anxiety sensitivity, meaning they experience thoughts and physiological sensations with a heightened fear response, Eckstein says.

Treatment for claustrophobia

Thankfully, claustrophobia doesn't need to get in the way of you living your life to the fullest. Various treatment options are available to help you get your claustrophobia under control. 

1. Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT)

CBT is a specific type of psychotherapy that helps to address maladaptive thoughts that cause anxiety and stress, says Safai. 

In CBT, you learn to look at your irrational, unhealthy thoughts and challenge them so you can create more rational and healthy thought patterns. Over time, these healthier thoughts come more naturally to you and you are better able to cope with the distressing thoughts.

2. Exposure therapy

Exposure therapy is an aspect of CBT that is crucial because it helps you face your fear. It involves repeated exposure to triggers. 

"Patients initially practice with encounters that are less anxiety provoking. The patient then gradually confronts more challenging encounters as anxiety reduces at each step," says Safai. 

You can start really small with this, even just looking at claustrophobia-triggering pictures, watching videos, or trying virtual reality before moving onto the real thing, says Eckstein. For example, you can do this with pictures or videos of elevators if that is one of your main claustrophobia triggers.

3. Interoceptive exposure

Rather than exposing yourself to a physical trigger, Eckstein says you can try interoceptive exposure, which exposes you to the physiological sensations of anxiety, so that you can better tolerate these sensations when they crop up.

"This could include simulating hyperventilation by breathing through a straw or mimicking chest tightness by using a weighted blanket," says Eckstein.

4. Mindfulness

"Mindfulness — the practice of allowing our internal experiences to exist without efforts to change or control them — can be a useful technique to build a more adaptive relationship with anxiety," says Eckstein. 

Mindfulness can help you learn to relate to anxiety indifferently, knowing that it's something they're capable of managing without avoiding it. 

5. Relaxation techniques

Learning skills to reduce anxiety such as diaphragmatic breathing or progressive muscle relaxation can help people with claustrophobia. These techniques counteract their brain's fight or flight response by engaging the parasympathetic nervous system, says Eckstein.

6. Medications

A class of anti-anxiety medications called benzodiazepines can be useful for short-term relief of anxiety, says Safai. While these medications can help with your physiological symptoms, they won't address the root cause of the claustrophobia itself. Examples of these medications are:

  • Xanax
  • Klonopin
  • Ativan

Insider's takeaway

Claustrophobia is an intense and irrational fear of enclosed spaces. It may cause you to avoid many things, and the anxiety can get in the way of you living your life to the fullest. 

Thankfully, many treatment options ranging from therapy to relaxation techniques to medication are available to manage claustrophobia. Don't hesitate to reach out to a mental health professional for help.

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