Claustrophobia is an anxiety disorder characterized by irrational fear of enclosed or small spaces. People with claustrophobia often describe it as feeling trapped without an exit or way out. Claustrophobia involves emotional and physical reactions to triggering situations. The fear of claustrophobia may be intense, but treatment can help manage or overcome it.
The cause of claustrophobia is not well known, but it is likely a combination of genetic and environmental factors.
Factors that may increase your chance of developing a claustrophobic anxiety attack include:
- Family history
- History of anxiety or nervousness when in an enclosed room or space
- Repeated avoidance of situations that have brought on a previous anxiety attack
Claustrophobia usually develops early in life during childhood or the teenage years. Claustrophobia may bring on feelings similar to a panic attack, which may cause:
- Rapid heart beat
- Shortness of breath or hyperventilation
- Lightheadedness or fainting
- Feelings of dread, terror, panic
Other symptoms of claustrophobia may include:
- Automatically and compulsively looking for exits when in a room or feeling fearful if doors are shut
- Avoiding elevators, riding in subways or airplanes, or cars in heavy traffic
- Standing near exits in crowded social situations
Your doctor will ask about your symptoms and medical history. A physical exam will be done. Diagnosis is based on your history of persistent or excessive fear that may:
- Be triggered by anticipating an event or situation
- Cause panic attacts associated with the fear-causing situation
- Interfere with normal daily activities
- That is not explained by another disorder
Claustrophobia can disappear in adulthood. If it does not, treatment is usually necessary to overcome the fear. Talk with your doctor or mental health provider about the best treatment plan for you. Options include:
The most common type of treatment for claustrophobia involves mental health counseling targeted to overcoming the fear and managing triggering situations.
Different types of strategies include:
- Relaxation and visualization techniques designed to calm the fear when in a claustrophobic environment
- Cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT)—an approach that involves learning to control the thoughts that occur when confronted with the fear-inducing situation in order to change the reaction
There are no current guidelines to prevent claustrophobia.
American Psychiatric Association
Anxiety and Depression Association of America
Canadian Mental Health Association
Canadian Psychiatric Association
Anxiety disorders. National Institute of Mental Health website. Available at: http://www.nimh.nih.gov/health/topics/anxiety-disorders/index.shtml. Accessed July 22, 2013.
Specific phobia. EBSCO DynaMed Plus website. Available at: http://www.dynamed.com/topics/dmp~AN~T113844/Specific-phobia. Updated March 13, 2013. Accessed September 26, 2016.
Treatment. Anxiety Disorders Association of America. Available at: http://www.adaa.org/finding-help/treatment. Accessed July 22, 2013.
Last reviewed June 2016 by Michael Woods, MD
Please be aware that this information is provided to supplement the care provided by your physician. It is neither intended nor implied to be a substitute for professional medical advice. CALL YOUR HEALTHCARE PROVIDER IMMEDIATELY IF YOU THINK YOU MAY HAVE A MEDICAL EMERGENCY. Always seek the advice of your physician or other qualified health provider prior to starting any new treatment or with any questions you may have regarding a medical condition.