Claustrophobia is the chronic fear of tight or crowded spaces. Many people experience some anxiety when someone is in their personal space or when they don't have room to move. This is commonplace and not a sign of a mental health problem.
Claustrophobia becomes problematic when the anxiety surrounding it impairs ones life in some way. They may become so anxious about being in a close space that they avoid a job opportunity, family gatherings, their children's sporting matches and any number of situations.
Someone with claustrophobia may not experience anxiety in other situations. They can also experience other mental health conditions, including additional phobias. They are not "unwell," but they should seek help after their phobia has inhibited them.
Fear of confined spaces
Classification of Claustrophobia
Claustrophobia is a kind of anxiety disorder. An anxiety disorder occurs when a person experiences chronic and debilitating anxiety, sometimes for no obvious reason.
A phobia is an anxiety disorder that involves a chronic fear of some particular object or situation. Many people are scared of particular animals or critters, like spiders.
Claustrophobia is a phobia of certain situations. A person is afraid of being inside of a tight space, not necessarily of the space itself. They can see a closet door and not be afraid of it, but they have anxiety when they step inside of it.
Agoraphobia is the fear of situations where a person does not think they can escape. It can include a fear of confined spaces, but it also entails a fear of wide-open spaces or leaving one's home. It is a similar yet separate mental health condition from claustrophobia.
Signs and Symptoms of Claustrophobia
No two individuals experience claustrophobia identically. Yet many people feel similar emotional and physical symptoms when they encounter confined spaces.
A person may feel an immediate and intense sense of fear. They may try to get away, and their fear may become worse if they cannot escape. They may believe that they are going to die as anxiety often presents a sense of impending doom for someone experiencing an episode.
One may begin to sweat profusely. They may feel like the room is getting hotter, even though the temperature is not changing. They may suffer from shortness of breath while they try to take faster and deeper breaths.
Some people with claustrophobia may experience an outright panic attack. In addition to the above symptoms, they may feel as though they are about to faint.
Their heart rate may increase to dangerous levels. This may cause heart murmurs or palpitations. Their blood pressure rates may change, causing a fainting spell.
The signs of claustrophobia in children are the same as the signs of claustrophobia in adults. Children may explode into temper tantrums or try to run away if they go into a confined space.
Some people with claustrophobia can conceal their fear. But they may look for exits as they enter a room and remain near an exit door. They may also go to the windows and open them, even though it is cold or raining out.
What Is the Difference Between Anxiety and Claustrophobia?
Anxiety is a feeling of fear. Everyone experiences anxiety at some point in their lives.
Most cases of anxiety come when a person is experiencing a difficult situation. It helps them cope with the scenario and respond to it quickly.
Anxiety can be healthy and normal. Anxiety can also be a sign of a condition like Lewy body dementia, especially in older folks. Resolving the condition can resolve the anxiety.
Claustrophobia is a specialized version of anxiety. The main difference between the two is that claustrophobia is specific. It applies only to situations where a person encounters a confined or enclosed space, and they can have anxiety in other situations.
Any confined space can trigger claustrophobia. The most common confined spaces are closets, elevators, and small cars.
Large spaces that are crowded can also induce anxiety. Concerts, parties, and office meetings with many people may make someone feel confined.
MRI and CT scans entail lying inside of a large machine. The machine is close to a person, so it can induce claustrophobia.
Being inside a dark room can induce claustrophobia. A person may think that a room is more confined than it actually is. But being afraid of dark rooms is more akin to nyctophobia.
Less common confined spaces include airplanes, revolving doors, and tunnels. Caves can also induce claustrophobia, though most people naturally avoid caves.
People with claustrophobia often misjudge how big a room is. People with severe claustrophobia may develop anxiety while being inside an enclosed space of any size. Large and empty rooms may be enough to induce fear because they feel trapped for some reason.
Causes of Claustrophobia
One reason why claustrophobia is so common is that there are many causes of it. A person's claustrophobia may originate from one or more of these causes. Scientists are still examining anxiety disorders, so more causes may be discovered.
The amygdala is two clusters located deep in the temporal lobe of the brain. It helps with numerous brain functions, including the processing of memory and emotional responses.
When someone experiences fear, their amygdala fires up. It produces the fight-or-flight response, during which a person fights a threat or runs away from it.
But the amygdala may go into overdrive, causing someone to feel anxious all the time. This may be due to a genetic disorder or brain damage.
Some people are born with a larger amygdala. A 2019 study found that people with larger amygdala volumes have more behavioural disorders, including phobias.
The GPM6A gene is a gene found in people's DNA. It lies inside the fourth chromosome in a region that affects how people respond to stressful situations.
If a person has a deficient gene, they may become frightened more often. In particular, people with defective GPM6A genes tend to develop claustrophobia more than other anxiety conditions. Doctors are not sure why this is the case, but they are looking into it.
Some people have a natural fear of things that pose dangers to them. Some babies are afraid of snakes and spiders because they can leave poisonous bites.
The same idea may apply to confined spaces. Confined spaces can entrap or suffocate a person. Human beings may have evolved with a fear of claustrophobia so they could avoid being trapped or hurt.
A person can also develop claustrophobia by watching their parents experience it. If they notice their parents being afraid of small spaces, they may train themselves to become afraid of them as well.
Some teachers and parents punish children by locking them in closets or dark rooms. A person may grow up associating all confined spaces with threats, creating claustrophobia.
Some people may become trapped in confined spaces for long periods of time. They may be stuck in an elevator or locked inside a bathroom by accident. The time they spend on their own can induce fear.
Experiencing an accident while travelling in a tight space can also induce claustrophobia. Experiencing turbulence inside an airplane can cause someone to stay away from all airplanes.
Many horror stories utilize confined spaces. A movie may show what it is like to be inside of a coffin or a cave. The director may use darkness and unsettling sounds to convey how unpleasant it is to be inside a tight space.
Most people associate small spaces with death. A coffin is a small space in which corpses are enclosed. Caves and tight underground spaces are traditional passageways to the underworld and the homes of demons.
Watching a scary movie with a closet in it may not be enough to induce claustrophobia. But it can trigger someone who has claustrophobia. It can also suggest to young people that tight spaces are locations that they should avoid.
Risks Associated with Claustrophobia
Many common activities require being in confined spaces for long periods of time. Driving a car, cleaning a closet, and using the bathroom all involve being in an enclosed space. Someone's claustrophobia may be so debilitating that they cannot do any of these.
An MRI machine can detect signs of diseases like cancer. A person's refusal to take an MRI because they are claustrophobic can delay medical treatments.
A panic attack has its own complications. Someone's heartbeat may rise so rapidly that they have a blood clot or cardiac arrest. If they faint, they may receive a head injury or damage to some part of their body.
Treatment of Claustrophobia
Anyone who is concerned about their anxiety should go to a doctor, regardless of what condition they think they have. If they cannot access a doctor in person, they can go to a virtual clinic. A doctor can examine their symptoms and give them a physical examination.
Looking over symptoms and responses to enclosed spaces may be enough for a diagnosis. Once a doctor has determined that an individual has claustrophobia, they can take several treatments.
Cognitive Behavioral Therapy
Cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) is a style of talk therapy that helps with all anxiety conditions. It is based on the idea that anxiety comes from misguided thought patterns. A person assumes that something is a threat to them, but that is not the case.
During the therapy, an individual will sit down with their doctor. They will talk about the reasons why they regard confined spaces as threats. They can talk about traumatic events and media depictions if they would like to.
The therapist then helps them find the facts about confined spaces. They may learn about their potential uses and benefits. They develop ways of coping when they go into enclosed spaces like visualizing bigger spaces.
Rational Emotive Behavioural Therapy
Rational emotive behavioural therapy is a variant of CBT. It is designed to help people with phobias.
A therapist spends time analyzing moments where a person feels afraid. The two of them recognize moments that activate anxiety. They determine what the person believes about those moments and how they feel during them.
The therapist will challenge the person's beliefs directly. They will ask them to think about the difficult moments from another person's perspective. The therapist might ask someone why someone else may not be afraid of confined spaces.
But the ultimate purpose is to allow an individual to develop self-acceptance. They may recognize that they will have difficult situations with tight rooms. But they learn to convey their emotions without becoming upset.
As the name suggests, exposure therapy involves exposure to the source of the phobia itself. This does not mean that a therapist will throw someone in a closet and lock the door.
What it means is that a therapist will put someone in a situation that triggers their phobia. Many therapists ask people with claustrophobia to close their eyes and envision a tight space. Others incorporate VR technology into therapy for easier visualization.
The person may feel initially afraid, but their therapist will help them. They may ask the individual to pursue different emotions other than fear. They may point out that nothing is happening to them inside the space.
One exposure therapy may be enough to resolve claustrophobia. A person should only perform the therapy with a professional therapist, not an untrained friend or relative.
Find the Cure for Claustrophobia
Claustrophobia is the chronic fear of tight, enclosed, and/or confined spaces. Someone may experience a panic attack whenever they walk into a room.
Many people experience a traumatic episode inside an enclosed space. This along with genetic reasons can produce claustrophobia in someone.
Yet anyone can get help for claustrophobia. Talk therapy can help someone challenge their preconceived notions of tight spaces. Exposure therapy can help them create a positive experience inside enclosed rooms.
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