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.
Claustrophobia as a Unique Problem
Even though claustrophobia is considered to be its own anxiety symptom, it is possible for people to develop claustrophobia on its own, similar to other types of phobia.
For example, 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, which would indicate that for some people it develops as its own condition.
Similarly, for some, claustophobia develops and acts more like other types of phobias, such as a fear of spiders. There are many that have a fear of small spaces that doesn't appear to have been developed by any traumatic experience, but do seem to show up at a young age. Phobias can also develop by seeing someone else in your life with the same phobia - which means if your parent was ever afraid in a small space, you may be too.
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 without an escape may have had some type of evolutionary benefit. For example, maybe those that avoided small, enclosed spaces were more likely to be safe from predators. In our evolutionary history, this would have been a tremendous advantage. But now that we live in a safer world, it seems and appears irrational.
Does the Cause Matter?
With so much time spent trying to determine the cause, it's important to remember that not all forms of anxiety have a clear cause, and the cause itself may not always matter. There are those that develop anxiety disorders for no apparent reason (indicating it may be genetically based) as well as those that develop them through a series of unrelated events.
For example, you can develop something like claustrophobia from completely unrelated events. If you had an anxiety attack in a party, and then left the party in an elevator, your mind may associate the anxiety with the elevator even though your anxiousness was caused by a party. Trying to determine the cause of the claustrophobia is often a difficult task.
But the good news is that the cause does not always matter. There is ample evidence that anxiety, no matter its cause, can be treated with the right anxiety reduction strategies. So those living with claustrophobia can address the condition (and those that cause it) with the right techniques and strategies.
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 with that fear later. It may be something you want to put in the hands of a psychologist.
The key here is something known as "exposure."
Studies have shown that humans have the innate ability to experience less anxiety when faced with something that causes fear for a long period of time. But that only works if you allow yourself to experience the fear until the fear goes away. If you "run away" from your fear, it causes what's known as "reinforcement." It convinces your mind that, because you ran away, it must be something very scary. It is almost as if your actions have an effect on how your mind sees the situation.
This can be complex, so let's look at it individually in the case of claustrophobia:
When you experience anxiety in small spaces, your first instinct is to leave the space. But with the principle of exposure, that may be your biggest mistake.
Let's use an elevator as an example. If you had a fear of elevators, and you walked inside one and felt anxiety, chances are you're going to want to leave right away. Yet studies have shown that if you leave the elevator as fast as you can, you'll "reinforce" the fear. Essentially, you will confirm to your mind that it was right to feel anxiety, because elevators are scary.
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 (using various anxiety reduction techniques), you show your mind that it's okay - that elevators are not dangerous, and that you are not in any danger by being on it.
For those with severe claustrophobia, this is not easy to do. The process is known as "exposure therapy," and it is generally something you work towards slowly, rather than simply jump in an enclosed space and hope it all goes away. It takes time and practice.
You'll also need to control your overall anxiety and any anxiety disorders that may have caused your claustrophobia. This is especially true 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.
If you haven't yet, make sure you take my free 7 minute 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.
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.
Author: Micah Abraham, BSc Psychology, last updated Sep 28, 2017.