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Claustrophobia and Anxiety: Causes and Solution

Claustrophobia is a well-known anxiety problem. It's generally thought of as the fear of small spaces, but it's not necessarily small - it's rooms that don't have a clear and easy escape (many of which happen to be small, like an elevator). It's technically a symptom of anxiety and not its own disorder, yet it may as well be its own disorder because some people experience claustrophobia without necessarily a separate anxiety problem.

Claustrophobia is a distressing condition, and one that doesn't always have a clear cause. Recognizing your own thought processes and using them to control your anxiety is important if you want to rid yourself of both anxiety and claustrophobia.

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Causes of Claustrophobia

Claustrophobia is actually generally considered a symptom of anxiety, rather than its own anxiety disorder. This is likely because most people that develop claustrophobia already have at least some type of mild anxiety. Take my free 7 minute anxiety test to find out more about your anxiety.

This makes some sense too because several disorders seem to be affected by or play a role in claustrophobia:

  • Generalized Anxiety Disorder - It seems that generalized anxiety disorder seems to play a role in the development of claustrophobia. Most likely there is some correlation between what led to a person developing the condition and what leads to the development of anxiety
  • Panic Disorder - When someone is in an enclosed space, they become more likely to suffer from a severe panic attack. Chances are that the individual was at greater risk of panic attacks or panic disorder, which means that they already showed at the very least a genetic pre-disposition tot the condition.
  • Social Phobia Those with social phobia often experience a feeling of needing to escape as part of the condition, although generally it's not limited to enclosed spaces. It's possible that some of this fear ends up tangentially passing over to the way they feel in any small space.

The development of claustrophobia itself is so incredibly complex that it's likely both caused by something related to anxiety and developed separately in its own way. Traumatic experiences appear to play a role in some people's claustrophobia. Childhood experiences do as well - children left in a room by accident or punished by being placed in a closet seem more at risk.

But even then it's not quite that simple, as not everyone with claustrophobia has those experiences. There are some that theorize that it's an evolutionary phobia, where being afraid of small spaces may have some evolutionary benefit even though now it's considered irrational.

No matter what causes it, treatment still needs to be aimed at both reducing claustrophobia and reducing anxiety.

How to Stop Claustrophobia and Anxiety

The treatment for claustrophobia is complicated, because it generally involves experiencing a considerable amount of fear first and then dealing it that fear later. It may be something you want to put in the hands of a psychologist.

The key here is exposure. You have the innate ability to experience less anxiety when faced with something that causes fear provided you wait it out until the fear goes away. If you avoid it or try to escape, you end up increasing your anxiety.

With regard to claustrophobia, if you avoid elevators (for example) or when you get on an elevator you're in a rush to get off, you can actually make your anxiety worse. But if you keep staying in the elevator and going up and down and up and down while also accepting the anxiety and controlling it, you can actually habituate to the problem and the elevator should cause less anxiety later. You can then work your way up to the most severe fears you have, allowing yourself to control the anxiety until it goes away completely.

You'll also need to control your overall anxiety, especially if you're having panic attacks, because these types of conditions are unlikely to go away on their own even if your claustrophobia is beaten.

Take my anxiety test to find out more about how to overcome your anxiety and what you can do to stop it completely. I've helped hundreds of those with claustrophobia keep their anxiety at bay using recommendations based on their answers.

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Harris, Lynne M., John Robinson, and Ross G. Menzies. Evidence for fear of restriction and fear of suffocation as components of claustrophobia. Behaviour research and therapy 37.2 (1999): 155-159.

Murphy, Kieran J., and James A. Brunberg. Adult claustrophobia, anxiety and sedation in MRI. Magnetic resonance imaging 15.1 (1997): 51-54.

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