What is it?

Claustrophobia is fear or dread of enclosed spaces. A person who suffers from claustrophobia may panic or feel very afraid when they go into an enclosed space. They may feel the same when they think about going into an enclosed space. These feelings can be very upsetting. Places where this might happen are:

  • inside a lift
  • on a plane, train or bus
  • in a tunnel
  • in a small or locked room
  • in a cellar
  • in any other confined area

People who fear one of these will often to react to them all.

The word claustrophobia comes from the Latin - claudere (to shut) and the Greek phobis (fear). It means fear of being shut in.

There are two main parts to claustrophobia.

One is a fear of being trapped, closed in or shut in.

The other is a fear of what might happen if you are trapped in an enclosed space. It is very common to think that you might run out of air and not be able to breathe.

Some people with claustrophobia can get afraid even if they are out in the open. Even thinking about being closed in or trapped is enough to bring on the fear. For some this could be fear of a dentists? chair, a long queue, or even wearing tight clothing.

Once a person has felt afraid in an enclosed space, they will become more afraid of this happening again. They start to avoid the places that bring on the fear. They will also avoid even thinking about these places. Coping like this is normal. But this is what keeps the fear going. It can make the fears worse over time.

Claustrophobia is a very common phobia. Lots of people have mild fears. They might only feel slightly afraid when they have been closed in. Some have severe fears. They feel very anxious indeed, and will go out of their way to avoid any chance of being closed in.

What causes it?

There are many reasons that can cause people to become claustrophobic. Sometimes bad events in the past can lead to this (we can often forget about these events). Other triggers can be real life events, TV or films. Even seeing someone else get upset can be enough. Sometimes the causes are not clear at all.

Being in or thinking about certain places triggers the fears. People respond by getting very anxious. When you feel like this it is normal to want to steer clear of the things that make you feel this way. This can have a big impact. You may avoid lots of places. You may miss out on things. You may not be able to focus and do things as well. Relationships may be affected.

Signs and symptoms

Symptoms may be:

  • sweating a lot
  • breathing quickly
  • heart racing
  • feeling sick or dizzy
  • shaking
  • jelly legs
  • fear that something awful will happen

Each person will feel different things.

Signs may be:

  • Inside a room - checking the exits, feeling anxious when all doors are closed
  • Inside a car - avoiding times when traffic is heavy
  • Inside a building - taking the stairs rather than the lift
  • At a party - standing near the door in a crowded room
  • Not wanting to travel by bus, train or plane
  • Not wanting to go near other small spaces

What can I do about it?

The good news is that most of the time claustrophobia is easy to treat. Psychological treatments are often the best.