Fear of confined spaces (claustrophobia) becomes a phobia when it interferes with your ability to function at work, school, or other daily activities. Common triggers include tunnels, elevators, trains and airplanes. Behavior training is the main treatment. Other coping methods include relaxation, deep breathing exercises and joining a support group.
Claustrophobia is an intense fear of confined or enclosed spaces.
Many fears seems reasonable. We all try to avoid things that make us feel uncomfortable. The difference between a fear and a phobia is that a phobia is an intense and irrational fear toward one or more things or situations. Also, with phobias, the level of your fear doesn’t match the actual danger presented by the feared object or situation.
Phobias become a health issue when the fear interferes with your ability to carry out daily activities. Phobias can limit your ability to work efficiently, put a strain on your relationships and reduce your self-esteem.
Common triggers include:
If you have claustrophobia, you feel anxious about being in an enclosed or tight-fitting space. You may have trouble concentrating and functioning. You may be overwhelmed with thoughts about being in a confined space. Your thoughts may keep you up at night.
About 12.5% of the population has claustrophobia. The average person with a specific phobia, such as claustrophobia, fears three objects or situations. About 75% of people with a specific phobia fear more than one object or situation.
Claustrophobia is more common in females than males. Although anyone, at any age, can develop a specific phobia, most develop in childhood and adolescence.
What causes claustrophobia isn’t fully understood. Researchers believe causes might include:
Technically, scientists believe neurochemicals overstimulate an area of your brain — your amygdala — in the presence of fear. There’s also thought that a single genetic mutation can increase your risk of claustrophobia if you have that gene defect.
If you have claustrophobia, you have a fear of enclosed spaces and you know it’s a problem because you take great caution in avoiding situations in which you might encounter confined spaces.
Your healthcare provider will want to confirm that your fear is indeed a phobia versus a normal fear and that it’s not the result of a medical condition or psychiatric disorder. Phobias significantly interfere with your ability to live a normal life. Your provider may give you a questionnaire to fill out or ask you directly how your claustrophobia has affected your daily life, how intense your fear feels and how often you feel it, how it affects your interactions with your friends and family and how you cope. Your provider may also ask you other questions about yourself, including recent life changes, stressors, and any medications or supplements that you take.
Your provider may make the diagnosis of claustrophobia if you have all of the following:
Exposure therapy and cognitive behavioral therapy are the two main treatments for claustrophobia.
Exposure therapy (also called desensitization therapy)
In this type of psychotherapy, you are gradually exposed to your feared situation. With gradual, repeated exposure, the goal is that you will feel comfortable in your specific feared situation.
Exposure therapy may involve:
Exposure therapy can be paced in several ways. Therapy also includes relaxation and breathing exercises. Your psychologist will develop a unique plan for you, based on the severity of your symptoms.
Cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT)
This type of psychotherapy (talk therapy) focuses on managing your phobia by changing the way you think, feel and behave.
During CBT, you’ll:
In addition to therapy and coping strategies, medications are sometimes prescribed for a short period of time to treat anxiety caused by claustrophobia. For example, your provider might prescribe medications to treat anxiety when you’re flying. The two main medication classes most often prescribed are:
In addition to seeing your primary healthcare provider or psychologist, you can try any of the following that make you feel comfortable:
Without treatment, a phobia can last a lifetime and can isolate you from people and social activities.
Fortunately, phobias are very treatable. Psychotherapy — exposure therapy in particular — helps as many as 90% of people committed to practicing the techniques they learn. You may notice improvements within weeks to a few months.
Tell your healthcare provider you have claustrophobia at your first medical appointment. They may prescribe a medication to take shortly before your test to help calm your nerves. Depending on the area of your body being examined, there may be other options during an MRI scan. Ask if an open MRI machine is available and could be an option for your exam.
Know that a calming light breeze will blow on your face, a headset is available to block out noise or to listen to music during your scan, and you’ll have a panic button if you feel uncomfortable and wish to be removed from the machine at any time. Also, your technician will talk to you throughout the scan. Other tips to keep yourself calm include:
It may be time to see your healthcare provider if your intense fear of enclosed spaces:
A note from Cleveland Clinic
It may be comforting to know that many people have phobias. Your healthcare provider is ready to help you. The good news is that claustrophobia is a treatable condition. With treatment and your commitment to practice the techniques you learn in therapy, you can learn to cope with your triggers, manage your fear of confined spaces and enjoy your life.
Last reviewed by a Cleveland Clinic medical professional on 09/15/2021.
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