Understanding Claustrophobia: Triggers, Symptoms and Treatments

Claustrophobia, or the irrational fear of enclosed spaces, is one of the most common situational phobias in the world. While the causes vary from person to person, some experts speculate that it is often rooted in negative experiences during childhood. Having this phobia can severely limit your life, adding undue stress on your health and keeping you from things you would otherwise enjoy. But this should not always be the case. Start your journey in combating claustrophobia by understanding the following.

Common triggers

What makes claustrophobia so difficult to live with is it has too many triggers found in your normal day-to-day life. These triggers can be feelings or situations, or even the mere thought of being in certain situations, without exposure to them. Some common triggers include:

  • Tube trains
  • Tunnels
  • Lifts
  • Revolving doors
  • Car washes
  • Public toilets
  • Shop changing rooms
  • Planes
  • Rooms without windows or rooms with sealed windows


scared face of girl on white background

When in a crowded place or confined space, claustrophobic people tend to experience symptoms of panic attacks, which can be distressing and frightening. The phobia is characterised by overwhelming feelings of anxiety and can also cause physical symptoms, such as:

  • Trembling
  • Sweating
  • Chills or hot flushes
  • Rapid heartbeat (tachycardia)
  • Difficulty breathing or shortness of breath
  • A choking sensation
  • A feeling of tightness in your chest or even chest pain
  • Dizziness and headaches
  • A sensation of butterflies in the stomach
  • A dry mouth
  • Ringing in the ears
  • Numbness or pins and needles
  • Confusion or disorientation

Along with these physical symptoms, people with severe claustrophobia may also experience psychological symptoms when they are in enclosed spaces. These symptoms often manifest as feelings of dread, fear of fainting, fear of losing control and even fear of dying.

Coping with an attack

There are several strategies that can help claustrophobic people with an attack. The most basic of these is to stay put during the attack and wait until the symptoms have passed. If it happens while you are driving, you have to pull over to the side of the road to wait out the episode.

As you wait, continuously remind yourself that the frightening feelings and thoughts will pass. Try to focus on something safe, like the movement of a clock or watch hand or the people passing by. Breathe deeply and slowly, counting to three on each breath. Actively challenge your fear by reminding yourself that your fears are not real, and visualise positive outcomes and images that make you feel at ease.

To cope with the stress your claustrophobia brings, try long-term strategies, such as working out, doing yoga or booking an aromatherapy massage.

Diagnosis and treatments

Many live with claustrophobia without seeking formal diagnosis. However, this can be problematic, because not only does it keep you from seeking treatment, claustrophobia also causes problems for other diagnostic processes and treatments. When you need to have an MRI scan, for instance, you may require a mild sedative before going through an MRI scanner or go to private clinics that offer open or upright MRI scans.

Get help from your GP and behavioural therapy specialist. They will be able to prescribe medications and administer therapies to address your claustrophobia. Treatments may involve cognitive behavioural therapy (CBT) or desensitisation or self-exposure therapy.

Do not allow your fears to limit you. Claustrophobia keeps you from doing and enjoying many things that benefit your wellness, so seek help as soon as possible. Your fear of confined spaces should not deter you from making the most of life.

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