Imagine this:

You and your friends are on a trip to the Bahamas. When you arrive, your tour guide introduces everyone to an amazing underground cave where some historical wonder exists. You want to see this wonder, but something about ‘underground,’ and ‘cave’ ticks you off.

That’s the first sign of claustrophobia. But the fear of confined spaces is much deeper than something ticking you off.

It’s that feeling of anxiety, helplessness, entrapment, and suffocation when you are in that underground cave with a limited amount of space, no windows, a little bit of darkness, and no visible way out.

That’s the complete claustrophobia meaning.

Some people learn to outlive that feeling as soon as they come out of the confined space, but others, not so much.

In this article, you’ll learn more about the fear of feeling suffocated, why it happens, and what you can do to help treat it.

Claustrophobia Meaning

The term ‘Claustrophobia’ is coined from two words of different origins. The first word is Claustro- derived from a Latin word, ‘clausturm,’ and the second word—Phobia, is derived from the Greek word, ‘phobos.’

Claustrum means a closed-in place, and Phobos means fear (hence, Phobias).

So, that would mean that the term Claustrophobia means the fear of closed-in places, right? Well, the answer is not as straightforward.

More people than you can imagine are scared of going into small, tight spaces, especially if you add a sense of danger to the scene. But that doesn’t make all of them claustrophobic. The true meaning of this fear is when a person gets irrationally and involuntarily nervous about closed-in spaces such that it could even be tagged an irrational nervous breakdown.

In other words, it does not make sense to other people.

If you’re afraid of an eerie cave with weird sounds and a scary ambience, that’s not claustrophobia. You’re just scared. But if everything seems okay, yet you can’t help but feel suffocated by being in a room with one window, that’s the fear of tight space — in other words, Claustrophobia.

Fear of tight space

Now that we know the answer to the question: what is claustrophobia? It’s time to talk about the two common ways one can experience the feeling. The first way is ‘fear,’ also replaceable with nervousness or anxiety. If you suffer from this form of claustrophobia, then you’ll be used to feeling an irrational fear of small places — almost like you are scared of being stuck without any obvious sign that it’ll happen.

In this case, you’ll most likely be

  • Looking for things that should scare you.
  • Waiting for a trigger.
  • Creating ideas in your head to validate your fear of being stuck, even if you are not stuck.
  • Trying to talk yourself out of not being afraid, even when there is no visible threat.

A common example of this is being stuck in an elevator. Even though you can hear people outside trying to help, you can’t stop yourself from overthinking all the possible dangers of being stuck in an elevator.

Feeling suffocated

Another way this psychiatric disorder can manifest is when the patient feels suffocated. This time, there is no anxiety involved, only a feeling of not being able to breathe properly. Again, there is no real danger, and the person is well aware. But even with the sense of safety, the patient can help but feel suffocated by the confined space — that’s claustrophobia.

An example is an MRI claustrophobia panic attack. During an MRI scan, there is no visible danger. However, studies have reported some people passing out, stopping breathing, or breaking into full panic attacks by being confined in that space. The same goes for the fear of elevators. While some people might have a nervous breakdown from the small space, others might pass out or even have a heart attack.

Claustrophobia Symptoms

Since we’re already talking about some signs, let’s look into the common claustrophobia symptoms. Note that these symptoms differ from patient to patient. As we have previously established, some people might tend towards the irrational fear window, leading to panic attacks, nervous breakdowns, and extreme anxiety. Others can lean towards the inability to breathe completely, irregular heartbeat, and sometimes, the heart can stop beating permanently.

Nonetheless, there are always a few claustrophobic symptoms to recognise before things spiral out of hand, and it would be extremely advantageous if these signs were noticed on time. That said, the following are the common symptoms in a person with claustrophobia (in the enclosed space):

  • Sweating, shaking, trembling, and hot flashes.
  • Urge to use the bathroom.
  • Fast heartbeat, shortness of breath, and hyperventilation
  • Dry mouth
  • Headache
  • Dizziness, lightheadness, or fainting
  • Chest pain and tightness.
  • Choking sensation
  • Numbness around the limbs and fingers
  • Confusion or disorientation
  • High blood pressure
  • Nausa
  • Feeling an irrovable sense of doom.
  • Panic attack or even a heart attack.

Claustrophobia Causes

Are people born with the fear of something, or is it triggered at a certain age? The truth is that claustrophobia might be one of the few specific phobias with a trace genes. Scientific studies suspect that a person with a slight defect in a gene referred to as GPM6A would have an overactive response to fear. Not to mention that this defect can be inherited from parent to offspring. However, an overactive response to fear might not be claustro-related. It could be one of the many other phobias.

Therefore, the surest cause of this phobia (as with many other specific phobias, e.g. fear of needles, height, spiders, or large bodies of water) is trauma.

Traumatic events (whether in childhood or not) can and have been the cause of many phobias over the years. For instance, a person might not want to drive again after a fatal car accident. In the same way, a patient may develop a fear of enclosed spaces after a traumatic experience. Some events that can trigger claustrophobia include;

  • A past (scary) event of being stuck (being stuck in a well),
  • Bully, especially when confined spaces or choking, the bully tool.
  • Abuse about the two instances previously mentioned.

Note that the nature of the trauma does not have to be the same as the current situation to be triggered. For instance, the experience of being trapped in an elevator can trigger fear, even if you are in a subway train or a revolving door.

How to Overcome Claustrophobia?

Now that we have successfully delved into what Claustrophobia is (and what it’s not), let’s talk about claustrophobia treatment.

Indeed, the fear of small spaces can be treated but not by over-the-counter medications. It should also not be treated in the same way heart attacks or nausea are treated. In other words, claustrophobia is a psychiatric disorder and not a physical one—hence, trying to treat the physical symptom will only worsen and delay treatment.

That said, it is also dangerous to think that avoiding tight spaces is the key. You could never take the train or get in an elevator, but what about unavoidable places like the bathroom stall or a dressing room closet?

Confined spaces surround us, including in your car (the one with an automatic lock), and running from your problem doesn’t make it go away. Therefore, the best way to overcome claustrophobia is to treat it.

Here are the two steps to treating claustrophobia.

  1. Be honest about it:

Truthfully, some people are unsure about whether or not they have the phobia. But if you have read this guide up to this point, you should not have any more doubt about your diagnosis. So, if you have confirmed that you have the phobia, the first step is to own up to it. Don’t try to act tough when you are breaking apart inside. Don’t let embarrassment stop you from opening up to people about it. If you’re in a situation where you’re being bullied for it, speak up. Let people know about your claustrophobia, especially your family and loved ones. You’d be surprised how much support you’ll get.

2. Get Help:

The second thing you need to do is to get professional help. As previously mentioned, over-the-counter drugs cannot do the trick. You’ll need to get diagnosed by a medical practitioner who can treat claustrophobia (remember that it is not a physical disorder). Since claustrophobia is common, affecting 7-10% of the population, finding treatment would not be difficult.

Getting Help

Speaking of professional help, let’s look at how to beat claustrophobia with therapy. You could say mental health specialists have a trick up their sleeve that can help you find your unique solution to claustrophobia. Everyone experiences the fear differently, with varying symptoms, and on different levels. Therefore, with therapy, you’ll be able to find a peculiar treatment for your unique case of claustrophobia. There are different types of therapy you could be introduced to. They are

Exposure Therapy

Just as the name intends, this therapy aims to treat a phobia by exposing you to it. Although it might seem scary and risky, it is one of the best ways to get rid of specific phobias. Indeed, the process of this exposure would be controlled and managed to ensure that there are no adverse effects. Also the pace and intensity of the exposure also depend on your reaction towards it. For instance, some patients may be asked to stay in an elevator with the therapist for a few hours to work their way through the fear, while others might be asked to stay alone in a locked room with no windows for a while. In a few cases, therapists first show you a photo of what frightens you. The way this works is when you face your fear, you’ll learn to defeat it.

Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT)

For those who would rather not face the fear, you can discuss it. In CBT, patients would meet with the trained therapist to talk about the negative and scary feelings that come with feeling trapped or suffocated. When you talk about these feelings of fear, the therapist can then help you find ways to help you overcome them. Note that CBT would always come with a little bit of exposure therapy.

Virtual Reality (VR)

Similar to exposure therapy, the patient is exposed to claustrophobic situations to stimulate therapy and treatment. However, in this case, nothing about the environment is real. According to its name, computer simulations recreate tight and small places to trigger the fear that comes from the phobia. While many might consider it to be similar, VR therapy is for those who prefer a safer, more controllable exposure.

Relaxation and Visualization

In this therapy, the patient needs to relax and visualise the exact situations that trigger the fear. Just like exposure therapy, the patient is exposed to this environment in the mind. If you can visualize yourself in such situations, you can learn to relax and calm your fear so that when the real situation does come, you’ll have a little bit of control.

Medical Treatment

This version of professional help will only suffice if therapy is insufficient. Some cases of claustrophobia are so serious that therapy alone cannot cut it. In such situations, the doctor or the medical practitioner can prescribe some drugs and antidepressants to help with the anxiety. Please take note that you should never try to self-medicate yourself. Always wait for a prescription and never take above your dosage. Now that you know how to overcome claustrophobia, let’s look at the worst-case scenario.

When Does it Become an Emergency?

Many people suffer from claustrophobia, and not all the cases are serious. However, if you find that being in small spaces, like your office’s bathroom stall, your cubicle, a revolving door, or your car, is affecting your daily routine, it has become an emergency.

In cases like this, you’ll need to see an anxiety or psychological therapist immediately. No matter how serious your fear of small places is, there is always a way to beat it.