Many people struggle with a fear of something in their lives or the chance of coming across their fears at some point in their lives. Learning how to overcome this fear is not always easy. Sometimes it takes the help from family members, doctors, counselors, or mental health professionals to teach a person about overcoming claustrophobia. There are several methods of treatment that can be helpful to a person who is experiencing anxiety about tight spaces. It may seem a bit unconventional, but there is even a claustrophobia board game that can be used to help teach younger patients how to overcome claustrophobia.
What is claustrophobia?
A good definition of claustrophobia is a fear of being stuck in a closed-in space like a closet or an elevator. Another claustrophobia definition given by Medical News Today is, “The word claustrophobia comes from the Latin word claustrum which means “a shut in place” and Greek phobos meaning “fear” which is the technical claustrophobia meaning. Anything that means to be trapped in a small place is a correct way to define claustrophobia. The opposite of claustrophobia is a fear of large or open spaces.
The big question is how to deal with claustrophobia? First, a correct diagnosis is important when dealing with any fear or phobia that causes a person to act unnaturally. A mental health counselor, a family physician, or a psychiatrist can help diagnose a person who seems to show claustrophobia symptoms. One way that they can determine a true sufferer is by giving the person a claustrophobia questionnaire. This questionnaire asks specific questions about the person’s fears and anxiety triggers. Once a diagnosis of claustrophobia is correctly identified, then claustrophobia treatment may begin.
Symptoms of claustrophobia
- extreme sweating
- rapidly increasing heart rate
- excessive breathing (hyperventilating)
- sweaty hands and feet
- irrational fear of small spaces
- going out of the way to avoid small spaces
- stomach pains
- a drying out sensation of the mouth and tongue
- needing to go to the bathroom urgently
- chest pains
- severe nausea
- inability to breath (feeling of suffocation)
- numbness and tingling in arms and legs
- feeling the need to run away from enclosed spaces
- confusion with other symptoms of claustrophobia when in or near tight spaces
Emotional and mental signs of claustrophobia
- fear of dying while being trapped in a small space
- fear of being suffocated while trapped in a small space
- fear of losing control of one’s mind or body while being trapped in tight places
What causes claustrophobia?
According to the American Psychological Association, one study shows that claustrophobia causes can be attributed to how close a person is to large, open spaces. It has to do with how a person views the world and the small and large spaces around them. The causes of claustrophobia can include physical, emotional, and mental symptoms that interrupt the normal habits in everyday life. Often, a person suffering from an irrational fear of tight spaces has several symptoms at the same time. They often look for ways to avoid their fear even if it means going out of their way.
People who suffer from a fear of tight spaces have often been through a traumatic experience earlier in life. They can also be someone who had a bad experience in the very recent past. Being separated from a parent as a child in a large crowd, becoming trapped in a hole or a locked building as a child, or getting stuck in an elevator can cause these fears to surface when a person gets older. A recent experience like being trapped in a car after a bad accident can also trigger irrational fears of tight spaces and being trapped.
Risk factors of claustrophobia
The NYU Langone Medical Center, which is comprised of four medical facilities in New York, says that risk factors for claustrophobia can include a family history of claustrophobia. Some risk factors are previous experiences with symptoms of the disorder and an extreme avoidance of panic triggers like MRI machines. Other research suggests that a prior traumatic experience with near drownings, being separated from a parent, or being kidnapped can cause symptoms to happen frequently.
- closed MRI and CT scanning machines
- crowded rooms
- large groups of people
- car washes
- rooms without windows
- revolving doors
- dressing rooms
- automobiles that automatically lock
- any locked room
- roller coasters
- working in crawl spaces
Treatment for claustrophobia
The UK National Health Service (NHS) suggests that people suffering from claustrophobia can benefit from cognitive behavioral therapy, self-help books, support groups, medication, and desensitization. Desensitization is a prefered method among mental health professionals concerning how to cure claustrophobia. Desensitization helps a person by purposely exposing the person to their fear, first in small time frames, then later in larger amounts of time. This is done with the knowledge of the person sufferer and is used to help them gradually tolerate exposure to their fear. The hope is that by spending time with their fear, the person suffering from the disorder will learn to live with the fear and manage it through breathing techniques, meditation, therapy, and mental exercises.
People who think they have this disorder should talk with their regular physician or a counselor. Mental health professionals can also teach sufferers how to get over claustrophobia. By recognizing the symptoms and triggers, a sufferer can work to relax in stressful situations and learn how to avoid panic attacks. Through regular mental exercises, visualization, and breathing techniques, those suffering from claustrophobia can learn how to maintain a normal, healthy lifestyle. NYU Langone Medical Center says, “Claustrophobia can disappear in adulthood.” This is not always the case, and professional help should always be sought when anyone experiences symptoms of the disorder.
Cognitive behavior therapy
This type of therapy involves talking with a licensed mental health professional or a support group led by a certified counselor. During these sessions, sufferers will talk about their symptoms, and they will learn about how they think and feel when experiencing anxiety. This type of therapy can help sufferers learn to build their self-confidence. It also helps teach them how to confront their fears through role-play and group talk sessions. A person learns why they become anxious, what type of thinking makes them feel worse, and how to think differently about stressful situations. Some people do not respond to this type of therapy, but in general, it is a great starting point with anyone suffering from an irrational fear of small spaces.
Sometimes a person who suffers from extreme fear responds well to calming exercises that they can rely on when they are experiencing anxiety. Learning relaxation techniques like breathing exercises and meditation can help a person relieve their fears in a healthy manner. One way that breathing exercises can help is by keeping the person calm and preventing them from hyperventilating through counting on each inhaled and exhaled breath. Another method of relaxation is for the person to close their eyes and focus on a happy or fun place they would like to be in the moment of fear. This is considered a safe place that a person can see, hear, feel, smell, and even taste in their mind. It can have as many or as little people as the person chooses, and a safe place can include or exclude any setting.
Common safe places
- a garden
- the beach
- a mountain retreat
- a waterfall
- a bridge
- a park
- a playground
- a close friend or relatives home
- a meadow
Sometimes it becomes necessary to treat a person with severe anxiety with anti-depressants or anti-anxiety medication. This means that a person may or may not be responding to meditation or desensitization techniques. It is common for people with extreme anxiety to require a combination of therapies to help treat their condition. Physicians and mental health care professionals can monitor a person regularly to make sure they are responding correctly to the proper medications. They do this by asking the patient to come in for a check-up on a regular basis.
Having a fear of closed in spaces can be a debilitating experience, but it does not have to stay that way. There is help out there for people who need it. Anyone who suffers from this type of anxiety should contact their regular physician to see if they should seek help. This condition is fairly common, and there are many health professionals and group therapists that are trained to treat it properly. Remembering that there are others out there that feel the same way can also be helpful. Talking to someone who has the same symptoms and asking where they found help is a good place to begin researching treatment options.