Claustrophobia (Fear of Confined Spaces)

Claustrophobia is the irrational fear of confined spaces. This is one of the most common phobias that exist. For some people, the thought of being trapped in a very small space, unable to move is absolutely horrifying. However, people suffering from claustrophobia will experience such dread when there is no inherent danger among them. For example, merely being in a room with no windows may be enough to make them feel as though they are confined within the room, causing them to panic.

It is very plausible that most humans fear confined spaces just as they fear spiders, loud noises, and heights, which may be due to evolutionary adaptations. For instance, it would be very beneficial for our hunter-gatherer ancestors to fear confined spaces (such as caves and holes) as they may risk being trapped and left behind from the group or risk being eaten by an animal.

Fearing confined spaces can very well be a way to protect ourselves from potential danger. However, people who suffer from full blown claustrophobia will think and behave as though they are in mortal danger when they are actually not. For example, someone suffering from claustrophobia may find it absolutely terrifying to take an MRI test or other medical test where the body is confined in a very small space where you’re advised not to move.

Images of coal miners working thousands of feet below the surface of the Earth may make most people’s stomachs turn, but for someone with claustrophobia, the mere thought of it is enough to put them in a fight or flight state of mind. This is especially the case when we read about the occasional story of mines collapsing, leaving dozens of men and women trapped thousands of feet under the ground.

Symptoms of Claustrophobia

Someone suffering from full blown claustrophobia will have an extremely difficult time being in areas that have minimal exits, are tightly compacted, or leave very little room to move freely. For example, an attic in a home, a walk-in closet, or even a very small vehicle may make someone with this condition feel extremely uncomfortable. Depending on the circumstances, their fear will inevitably put them in a fight or flight state of mind.

Someone with claustrophobia may be hyper-aware of their environment. For instance, they may be constantly concerned with where the exits are, how large the room or area they are in is, and other analogous concerns. Their intense fear may also interfere with their ability to form and maintain healthy relationships with others insofar as their condition hinders their ability to function in day to day life. They may also have difficulty with holding a job, depending on the tasks and environment.

Below, you will see some more common symptoms of this phobia:

  • Intense anxiety when in confined spaces
  • Anxiety when thinking of confined spaces
  • Overly concerned with their environment
  • Unwilling to go to certain areas (e.g. closet, attic, etc.)
  • Experience fight or flight when there is no real danger
  • Unable to control their intense fear
  • Muscle tension, shakiness, and sweating
  • May experience panic attacks

Causes of Claustrophobia

Someone may develop claustrophobia due to them experiencing a very traumatizing event, as well as having the genetic makeup to develop mental illness. These two different parameters are said to be some of the most pertinent causes of any given mental disorder.

As far as genetics goes, someone may be at risk for developing claustrophobia if they have a family history of mental illness, especially of anxiety disorders. If someone were to have such a family history, then they may have an increased risk for developing claustrophobia. This would likely be due to them also having an increased risk for being genetically predisposed to developing mental illness in general.

If someone were to have such a genetic predisposition, then it may only require them enduring some sort of traumatic experience for them to develop full blown claustrophobia. Some examples of this occurring are coal miners getting trapped in a collapsed mine thousands of feet under the ground for several days or weeks, a child being trapped in a well or being locked in a closet, or being violently pinned down by someone against their will.

Though we do not definitively know what causes every mental illness to develop as they are often very complex, there is a consensus among most mental health professionals that both genetics and environmental factors play very significant roles in the development of virtually any given mental disorder, including claustrophobia. Taking a closer look at these two different parameters may give you more insight as to whether or not you are at risk for developing claustrophobia.

Claustrophobia Treatments

People suffering from claustrophobia may greatly benefit from exposure therapy, as well as anti-anxiety or antidepressant medication. Exposure therapy is one of the most common forms of treatment for people suffering from phobias. It works by having the therapist gradually expose the patient to their fear over a given period of time. Theoretically, the more someone is exposed to something they fear, the less it will bother them over time. This is the goal of exposure therapy: To desensitize them from their fear by repetitively exposing them to it.

It is very important that the therapist implementing exposure therapy for a claustrophobic patient is very experienced at treating phobias as if the patient is exposed to too much too soon, then it may actually have counterproductive repercussions, such as worsening their condition as opposed to improving it.

Besides exposure therapy, talk therapy such as cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) may also be advantageous for someone suffering from claustrophobia. Besides therapy, medication may be beneficial as well. However, this is something that should first be discussed with their doctor to ensure that it is the best course of action to take.

Dialectical Behavior Therapy (DBT) for Claustrophobia

DBT is a very effective form of treatment for people struggling with emotion regulation. It is often used to treat people suffering from borderline personality disorder. Nevertheless, it can also be very advantageous for someone suffering from anxiety disorders like claustrophobia too. This is due to the numerous amount of coping skills you can expect to learn in a DBT group. These groups typically last about 6 months long and can have anywhere from two people to several people depending on how many join the group.

One very effective DBT skill for helping someone with claustrophobia is half-smiling. This technique works by having you think about that which you fear or upsets you all while slightly raising the corners of your mouth by lightly smiling, thus the term “half-smiling.” Although, it isn’t enough to just think about your fear while half-smiling, you also have to try and refrain from entertaining those painful emotions that your specific fear may evoke.

Mindfulness meditation is also heavily used in DBT and can greatly benefit someone with claustrophobia as it is done in a group setting, which helps to put the patient out of their comfort zone. These group mindfulness practices may include drinking warm tea to hone in on the sense of taste and tactile senses or simply focusing on the breath.

Coping ahead is another very useful DBT skill that can help someone with claustrophobia. With coping ahead, you will want to find a place where you can sit down quietly without distraction. Close your eyes and then think about the many different possible scenarios where you would face your specific fear and overcome it or cope with it. Doing so will help you to be much better adept at coping with your claustrophobia when you are actually exposed to the specific fear associated with it in real life.

Yoga for Claustrophobia

There are numerous different yoga poses that can substantially benefit someone who is suffering from claustrophobia. In part, this is due to the meditative state of mind that yoga tends to emit in those who practice it on a consistent basis. Yoga can be thought of as meditation in motion. It can help to relieve some of the anxiety associated with claustrophobia due to the mere fact that by engaging in yoga, your attention will be redirected to something more productive.

There are many different types of yoga that someone with claustrophobia can benefit from, such as hatha yoga or hot yoga, among many others. Nevertheless, regardless of the many different forms of yoga that exist, virtually all of them can help to relieve some of the stress and anxiety that is associated with claustrophobia.

If you have never practiced yoga before, then it may be in your best interest to take a class or watch some guided videos that can help you through each pose. Just like with meditation, the more you practice yoga, the more adept you will become at it. Besides helping you to reduce your symptoms of claustrophobia, you can also expect to acquire increased strength and flexibility, among other benefits.

Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT) for Claustrophobia

CBT is a psycho-social intervention that aims to improve one’s mental health. It is a modality that is often used to treat people suffering from anxiety disorders such as generalized anxiety disorder and OCD. Someone with claustrophobia may also be able to benefit from CBT as well seeing as how it would allow them to have a much better understanding as to why they think and behave the way they do in relation to their irrational fears.

CBT can be immensely helpful for someone with claustrophobia given the sheer automaticity of their symptoms. For example, when someone with claustrophobia is exposed to their fear, they will almost always have an instantaneous subconscious reaction to their fear. Such a lack of introspection is likely a large part of why someone with this condition will suffer to the extent that they will. CBT can help you to take a step back and analyze your fears more deeply than you typically would.

Besides learning to be more fastidious with regards to understanding one’s specific fears, someone with claustrophobia engaging in CBT can also expect to learn various other skills aimed at helping to relieve the anxiety caused by their condition.

Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction (MBSR) for Claustrophobia

MBSR is an 8-week evidence-based program that offers secular, intensive mindfulness training to help people who are suffering from anxiety, stress, depression, and other sorts of mental anguish. MBSR may be able to significantly help someone who is suffering from claustrophobia as mindfulness meditation has been shown to be very beneficial for anxious people. In such a structured program, someone with claustrophobia can expect to learn a plethora of different skills that can help them to relieve the intense anxiety that’s associated with their specific phobia.

Talk to your doctor or therapist to see if MBSR can help you to reduce the intensity of your symptoms of claustrophobia, as well as where to find MBSR programs in your area.

Exposure Therapy for Claustrophobia

As previously mentioned, exposure therapy is one of the most common ways to treat anxiety disorders such as claustrophobia. It can be an efficient way to help desensitize the patient to their specific fears. Be that as it may, it is imperative that the therapist implementing it on their patient is very adept at doing so. For example, if the therapist were to slightly expose someone with claustrophobia to their fear, then it may not be very effective as they may need a higher amount of exposure to truly trigger any sort of worthwhile change in the patient.

The same can be said for the antithesis of this scenario. If the therapist were to excessively expose someone with claustrophobia to their fear, then doing so could be highly counterproductive to the point to where their claustrophobia may become immensely worse due to the therapy alone. So, it is paramount that the therapist implementing exposure therapy for someone with claustrophobia has a very strong sense of just how severe their symptoms are so that they can know the level of exposure that the patient will likely be able to handle.

Reducing Caffeine for Claustrophobia

It is no secret that consuming large amounts of caffeine throughout the day can aid in making you more anxious. This makes sense when we look closely at how caffeine affects our body’s physiology. When we consume a high dose of caffeine, our heart will start to beat faster and we become more tense. Essentially, our body will begin to go into a “fight or flight” state of mind. Such a frame of mind is often a precursor for someone with claustrophobia to experience panic attacks.

So, consuming little to no caffeine throughout the day may be able to significantly help reduce your day to day anxiety. Although doing so will likely not make all of your anxiety go away, it will indeed help you to reduce any unnecessary suffering that you would have otherwise experienced if you were to consume a large amount of caffeine.

Beverages like coffee and tea are often high in caffeine, as well as some energy drinks. In fact, even some foods have caffeine in them as well, such as dark chocolate. Being more conscious of your daily caffeine consumption may help you to reduce some of the symptoms associated with claustrophobia.

Psychiatric Drugs for Claustrophobia
Antidepressant Drugs

These types of medications aren’t only for people who suffer from depression as they can also help people suffering from anxiety disorders as well, such as claustrophobia. Some common antidepressants are Paxil, Zoloft, and Lexapro, among several others. These drugs may be able to help reduce some of the symptoms of claustrophobia.

These types of drugs are typically taken on a daily basis. They can indeed help prevent panic attacks from occurring, but they are more so used to help reduce people’s daily anxiety. Talk to your doctor to see if taking antidepressants can help to reduce your symptoms of claustrophobia, as well as whether or not it is safe to do so.

Anti-anxiety Drugs

These types of medications are very useful to help prevent panic attacks. Such drugs can be extremely useful for people suffering from severe claustrophobia due to the fact that people with phobias often experience panic attacks as well. Some common anti-anxiety medications include Xanax, Valium, and Klonopin, among many others.

These types of drugs are not typically taken on a daily basis, but they may be insofar as their claustrophobia is severe enough. However, this is something that you should first discuss with your doctor before you decide to do so to ensure that it is safe and effective.

Exercise for Claustrophobia

Exercise has been shown to be extremely beneficial for people suffering from anxiety disorders, including claustrophobia. Specifically, cardiovascular exercise can significantly help to relieve one’s stress. This is not to say that weight-resistance training would not benefit someone with anxiety, but rather that aerobic exercise is has been shown to be more effective at releasing those feel good chemicals in the brain, such as endorphins.

According to the American Psychology Association, exercise can help to condition the mind to better cope with stressful situations. This makes sense when we take into consideration the high amount of stress that the body is put under during strenuous exercise. So, if you yourself are sedentary, then engaging in some form of aerobic exercise may be able to significantly help reduce your symptoms of claustrophobia by making it much easier for you to cope with the anxiety and stress that’s associated with this condition.

There are many different aerobic modalities that you can partake in to help reduce your symptoms of claustrophobia, such as swimming, biking, skiing, walking, and jogging. You can also acquire the many benefits of exercise by playing sports such as tennis, soccer, basketball, and racquetball, among many other sports. Engaging in some form of exercise consistently may be able to help relieve some of the pain associated with claustrophobia over time.

Meditation for Claustrophobia

There are many different forms of meditation that exists which can be very advantageous for someone suffering from claustrophobia. Specifically, mindfulness meditation has been shown to be quite beneficial for helping people to enter into a more equanimous state. There are many different ways with which you can implement mindfulness meditation and there are also many different meditation apps which are designed to make things as easy as possible for you.

Mindfulness has the potential to significantly help those suffering from claustrophobia due to how it will help one to distract themselves from their fear by refocusing their attention onto something else that does not have any sort of emotional baggage attached to it, such as by focusing on the breath for example. This is one of the most basic ways that one can meditate and be present.

For someone with claustrophobia in the midst of a panic attack, redirecting one’s attention to the various sensations felt when breathing can actually help to reduce the amount of mental anguish experienced during such an influx of anxiety.

To implement mindfulness meditation to help relieve one’s symptoms of claustrophobia, you can do so by paying close attention to the way the muscles in your abdomen and chest contract and relax with every inhale and exhale. You can spend time dwelling on how it feels as your chest expands during each inhale and how it sinks in with every exhale.

Besides focusing on your breathing, you can also focus on the sounds around you, the way your skin feels as you touch certain objects, the way foods taste, as well as the way certain aromas smell. Essentially, honing into your 5 senses can significantly help you to reduce some of the anxiety that is associated with claustrophobia. Also, remember that it will take a lot of practice to become an adept meditator. So, practice is key.

If you think you may be suffering from some of the symptoms of this condition, then you may benefit from therapy. Feel free to reach out to your doctor or local mental health clinic to see what your available options are and to see if there is any sort of discount or promo code available to help you with the costs of treatment, as well as if your health insurance will cover treatment costs.

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