What is claustrophobia?
Claustrophobia is the irrational fear of confined spaces. People with claustrophobia may feel anxiety or panic inside a lift, crowded room, tunnel, tube train, or other enclosed areas. Claustrophobia can make people feel mild anxiety or result in severe anxiety or a panic attack.
It's estimated that around 10% of the UK population are affected by claustrophobia during their lifetime. But it's usually possible to overcome claustrophobia with appropriate treatment.
What triggers claustrophobia?
Everyone is different, and there are many situations or feelings that can trigger claustrophobia.
Some of the most common claustrophobia triggers are:
Cars in heavy traffic
Rooms with sealed windows
Some people experience MRI claustrophobia. An MRI scanner is a large tube that hospitals use to scan your body. If you have an MRI, you have to lie inside the scanner for a while. This can trigger panic attacks in people with claustrophobia. If you've got claustrophobia and need an MRI scan, it's essential to let the hospital know in advance.
What are the symptoms of claustrophobia?
If you have claustrophobia, you may have a panic attack when you're in a crowded or confined space. As well as experiencing an overwhelming feeling of anxiety, the physical symptoms of a panic attack include:
Sweating or hot flushes
Fast heartbeat (tachycardia)
Feeling dizzy or lightheaded
Ringing in your ears
Shortness of breath or difficulty breathing
Chest pain or tightness in the chest
A choking sensation
Shaking or trembling
Numbness or pins and needles
Muscle tension or aches and pains
Feeling tired or lacking energy
'Butterflies' in your stomach
Needing to go the toilet lots
Feeling confused or disorientated
Severe claustrophobia symptoms include:
A feeling of losing control
Feelings of dread
Feeling as though you're dying
What causes claustrophobia?
Claustrophobia is often caused by a traumatic event in childhood, like:
Being accidentally trapped in a cupboard or stuck in a small space
Being punished by being locked in a small area, like a bathroom
Getting stuck on a crowded bus or train
Experiencing turbulence on a plane
You're also more likely to be claustrophobic if you grew up with a parent or family member with claustrophobia. Seeing a loved one having a panic attack in a small, enclosed area may lead to you associating intense fear with similar situations.
How is claustrophobia treated?
If you've got claustrophobia, the chances are you're already aware of your phobia without a doctor confirming it. Taking steps to avoid confined spaces is probably a regular part of your daily life. Avoidance of situations may reinforce anxiety.
Things you might do to prevent feeling anxiety or panic include:
Taking the stairs in a building rather than use the lift
Standing near the door in a crowded room
Avoiding car journeys when traffic is heavy
Automatically checking for the emergency exits in public areas like cinemas, theatres, and shopping malls
But getting help from a GP and a specialist, like a psychologist, can often help. Treatments or therapies a GP or psychologist may suggest are:
Self-exposure therapy (or desensitisation) – involves being placed in a situation that triggers your claustrophobia to confront and overcome your fear. The idea is that the more you're exposed to what scares you, the less you'll fear it.
Cognitive behavioural therapy (CBT) – a talking therapy that explores your thoughts, feelings and behaviour. It teaches you practical ways to deal with your phobia.
Self-help therapy – a specialist can teach you different relaxation and visualisation techniques to use when you're in a situation that triggers your claustrophobia. These might include counting down from 10 to calm your nerves or picturing a happy, safe place in your mind to ease your panic.
Medication – if you have severe claustrophobia that's affecting your daily life or if you also have other conditions like anxiety or depression, the doctor may prescribe anti-anxiety medication or antidepressants.
When should I see a doctor?
Speak to a healthcare professional if you’ve been dealing with symptoms of claustrophobia regularly and they’re interfering with your life.
What can Livi do to help?
A GP will talk to you about your symptoms, how they affect you, and whether there are any triggers to your claustrophobia that they can help you to improve.
They may also refer you for treatment with psychological therapies, such as CBT (cognitive behavioural therapy).
If your claustrophobia symptoms are very severe, or you've already had psychological therapy, you may need medication to help manage your condition.
- Reviewed by:
- Dr Bryony Henderson, Lead GP at Livi