In A Better You, Phobias & Fears

Claustrophobic : A History and Explanation

There are many different phobias in the world today. From the bizarre, like fear of clowns, to the mundane, like fear of water, they come in all kinds and afflict all people. One of the most prevalent phobias in the world today is claustrophobia. Being claustrophobic can lead to a whole abundance of issues in day to day life. Claustrophobia ranges from a mildly annoying problem to something that has potential to cause a great deal of stress, anxiety, and panic. Being that claustrophobia reportedly affects up to 7% of the world’s population, according to Phobias: A Handbook, it is worth learning more about. Defining claustrophobic situations is easier requested then done so it will take a bit of reading to find the true meaning of claustrophobic situations. If you know or are one of the unfortunate people that suffer from the phobia then keep reading for we will delve into its history, symptoms, and possible treatments.

Claustrophobic Definition And History

To understand the definition of claustrophobic fear we have to know a little about its history. The meaning of claustrophobia Claustrophobia is derived from the root Latin words claustrom (“shut in place”) and phobos (“fear”). Claustrophobia is typically triggered by a person’s fear of being trapped in a small space, room, or vehicle. This fear of confined places can include elevators, windowless rooms, airplanes, or even tight clothing. This phobia is typically filed under the umbrella term of anxiety disorder though it seems much more severe in comparison. Though this seems like a semi-avoidable phobia it can quickly begin to degenerate the quality of life for the person that suffers from it. Later on we will take a look at some common ways that folks who are afraid of tight spaces have to change their lives.

Symptoms of Claustrophobia

The onset of claustrophobia typically mirrors that of an outright anxiety attack. The difference between an anxiety attack and one brought on specifically by claustrophobia are the ways that they recur. Anxiety attacks may not always follow a pattern but feeling claustrophobic will always be triggered by similar events. Knowing when you are about to have an attack is a great way to avoid one so let’s look at the symptoms so common in those that have a fear of enclosed spaces.

  • Visible physical reactions – Those that suffer from the fear of small spaces will almost always react to them by sweating. This sweating is followed by visible shaking, or trembling, and the possible onset of nausea. In extreme cases it is not unusual to see someone faint or get sick.
  • Inward physical reactions – Being afraid of enclosed spaces doesn’t mean you will always wear it on your sleeves. Sometimes your phobia of small spaces will lead to you feeling light headed, dry mouthed, and like your stomach is full of butterflies. Minor numbness in the extremities can occasionally happen.
  • Psychological reactions – With your claustrophobia in full swing you might begin to feel panic, dread, and eventual terror. You might start to become afraid of the consequences of the room, or space around you, closing in. The onset of confusion and disorientation is not uncommon at this point.

Common Claustrophobic Environments

The nature of claustrophobia insists that there is no sure fire way to avoid feeling completely free of confined spaces. The very nature of this phobia makes one acutely aware of their surroundings. It’s a fear that constantly hovers at the edge of awareness. Here are some of the most common places that claustrophobic panic attack and anxiety issues will commonly crop up.

  • Airplanes, Cars, and Trains – The fear of confined spaces does not limit itself simply to rooms. People who suffer from the fear of closed spaces will also feel that same anxiety while on vehicles that don’t have an immediate exit ability. As someone who has suffered from claustrophobia I have found myself triggered by long rides in cars, on boats, or in airplanes.
  • Elevators – If you don’t believe yourself to be claustrophobic but still start find yourself asking, ‘Am I claustrophobic?’ when getting on an elevator–you know your answer. Elevators strike all the right boxes to trigger an outright panic attack in those that suffer from a phobia of tight spaces. Elevators are typically crowded, small, and can occasionally be in disrepair.
  • Closets and Bathrooms – It seems sort of silly to be claustrophobic in your own home but it does happen. Ask anyone who has a fear of suffocation to try standing in the back of a full closet or to have to clean out tiny bathrooms. They start sweating, shaking, and feeling really ill at ease.
  • Tunnels, Caves, and Basements – How often do we have to deal with tunnels and caves in our lives? You would think that this would be an easy bullet point to avoid but its not. Many people are reliant on public transport, trains, and metro railings to get to where they need to go. Sometimes this means that you will have to take a trip underground. This can cause the onset of a very emotional claustrophobia reaction.

Is Claustrophobia Natural or Conditioned?

Many phobias in life can originate somewhere in the foggy history of our childhood. There can be triggering events that we no longer remember that began the slippery slide to our own personal demons. In regards to the phobia of small spaces it is hard to define claustrophobic origins. Some people believe that the phobia is learned while others believe it has a physical origin. Let’s look at the two schools of thought and how they came to their decisions.

  • Physical Origin of Claustrophobia – Those that believe claustrophobia to be physical in origin will point to the amygdala as the cause of the problem. The amygdala is the smallest structure in your brain. Despite its size it is responsible for a large number of duties including your fight or flight response. So how does this relate to claustrophobia? Studies by Dr. Fumi Hayano have revealed that patients with anxiety attacks frequently had smaller amygdala. Dr. Hayano went on to point out that smaller amygdala’s caused rather ‘abnormal reactions’ to various stimuli that were related to panic disorders. This could lead to the awful symptoms that one experiences while suffering from claustrophobia.
  • Conditioned Origin of Claustrophobia – You may have heard of Pavlov’s Dog at some point in school. Basically a scientist trained his dog to react a certain way whenever a bell was sounded. Scientists believe that a similar conditioning can occur to cause the onset of claustrophobia. Traumatic experiences, whether one off or repeated, in the history of a patient can be pointed as the cause and origin of their ‘conditioning experience’. Here are some examples of ‘conditioned claustrophobia’:
    • A young child being locked in a dark room without being able to find the door.
    • The experience of almost drowning.
    • A child gets lost in a large crowd and has trouble finding their parents.
    • The experience of getting locked in a tight space: cars, closets, or other vehicles.
    • Medical procedures such as the MRI machine.
  • Mental Origin of Claustrophobia – Scientists point to claustrophobia as part of a classification of ‘prepared phobias’ that are innate in our brains. These phobias are prepared before birth as a way to help our bodies and minds recognize potentially dangerous environments and situations. This type of phobia could be considered a part of the process of evolution.

Can an MRI Machine cause claustrophobia?

Many patients are unaware of their own claustrophobia until they are forced to use an MRI for the first time. In order to get an MRI, or magnetic resonance imaging, a person has to lay down on a small platform in order to be pulled into the center of a small device. According to Dr. Susan Thorpe an astounding amount of people have their first panic attack while inside of one of these machines. This has led some scientists to hypothesize that MRI machines can trigger buried memories of claustrophobic experiences.

Are there any treatments?

Fortunately for those that suffer from claustrophobia there are ways to allay the depth of the feeling. Because claustrophobia is classified as an anxiety disorder the same rules of treatment will apply.

Claustrophobia is a scary and potentially life ruining phobia. Fortunately there is a world of science behind its diagnosis and eventual cures. While those who suffer from the phobia cannot expect any overnight success there is still a slew of ways to get their phobias under control.

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