Claustrophobia is the irrational fear of confined spaces. It affects about 10% of the UK population.
Some people with claustrophobia only react with mild anxiety when in a confined space, while others experience severe anxiety or have a panic attack.
The most common experience of claustrophobia is a feeling or fear of losing control.
Many different situations or feelings can trigger claustrophobia. Even thinking about certain situations without exposure to them could be a trigger. Some examples of common triggers include:
cars with central locking
changing rooms in shops
hotel rooms with sealed windows
If you have felt anxious during the last six months about being in a confined space or crowded place, or if you have avoided confined spaces and crowded places for this reason, it is likely that you are affected by claustrophobia.
Panic attacks are common among people with claustrophobia. They can be very frightening and distressing and symptoms often occur without warning.
As well as overwhelming feelings of anxiety, a panic attack can also cause:
hot flushes or chills
shortness of breath or difficulty breathing
a choking sensation
chest pain or a feeling of tightness in the chest
a sensation of butterflies in the stomach
headaches and dizziness
numbness or pins and needles
a need to go to the toilet
ringing in your ears
feeling confused or disorientated
People with severe claustrophobia may also experience psychological symptoms such as:
fear of losing control
fear of fainting
feelings of dread
fear of dying
Most people with a phobia are fully aware that they have one. Many people live with claustrophobia without having it formally diagnosed and take great care to avoid confined spaces.
However, getting help from your GP and a specialist with expertise in behavioural therapy, such as a psychologist, can often be beneficial.
Claustrophobia can be successfully treated and cured by gradually being exposed to the situation that causes your fear. This is known as desensitisation or self-exposure therapy. You could try this yourself (read some self-help techniques), or with the help of a professional.
Cognitive behavioural therapy (CBT) is often very effective for people with phobias. CBT is a type of counselling that explores your thoughts, feelings and behaviour to develop practical ways of effectively dealing with the phobia.
Charities and self-help groups
Charities such as Anxiety UK offer support to people with claustrophobia.
Self-help groups are a useful way of meeting others with similar experiences and sharing ways of coping. For example, you could join the Agoraphobia, Claustrophobia, Anxiety and OCD Support Group on Facebook.
Coping with a panic attack
If possible, you should stay where you are during a panic attack. The panic attack could last up to an hour, so, if you are driving, you may need to pull over and park where it is safe to do so. Do not rush to a place of safety.
During the attack, remind yourself that the frightening thoughts and sensations are a sign of panic and will eventually pass. Focus on something that is non-threatening and visible, such as the time passing on your watch, or items in a supermarket.
The symptoms of a panic attack normally peak within 10 minutes and most attacks will last between five minutes and half an hour.
What causes claustrophobia?
Many cases of claustrophobia are caused by a traumatic event experienced early in childhood.
For example, adults may develop claustrophobia if, as a child, they were:
trapped or kept in a confined space
bullied or abused
Claustrophobia can also be triggered by unpleasant experiences or situations, such as turbulence when flying or being stuck in a tube tunnel between stations.
Sometimes, children with a parent who had claustrophobia may become claustrophobic themselves, by associating confined spaces with the adult's anxiety and with feeling helpless to comfort the person they loved.
MRI scan anxiety
If you are claustrophobic and need to have an MRI scan, let the staff at the hospital know before the day of your appointment.
They may be able to provide you with a mild sedative, or advise you to speak to your GP for a prescription.
In some cases, you may be able to attend an open or upright MRI centre, designed for people with severe MRI anxiety. However, these clinics are often only available privately.