Claustrophobia • What can you do against claustrophobia?

Afraid of tight spaces

Author: Monika Preuk, medical writer
Last updated: February 12, 2021

Written according to the highest scientific standards and checked by experts

Fear of tight spaces and crowded places is typical of claustrophobia. The causes of anxiety disorder are not always clear. What is certain, however, is that the claustrophobia can be cured with the appropriate treatment.

Lift, Klaustrophobie

There are many examples and probably everyone knows someone who suffers from claustrophobia – or has already experienced claustrophobia. Around seven percent of the population is said to be affected by this anxiety disorder, twice as many of them are women as men.

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Claustrophobia: do not confuse claustrophobia and agoraphobia

The claustrophobia is often colloquially called “claustrophobia”. However, that is actually not correct: Experts call claustrophobia what is known as agoraphobia. This means the fear of large spaces, the exact opposite of claustrophobia.

Signs of Anxiety Disorder Claustrophobia

People with claustrophobia feel scared when they are in tight spaces or in large crowds. So the anxiety disorder means developing fear or even panic just at the thought of being locked in. Claustrophobia is one of the specific phobias. This means that claustrophobia is caused by a certain trigger.

Possible triggers for a claustrophobic panic attack

For those affected, the following situations and places are extremely stressful and cause fear and even panic:

  • elevator
  • Bus, subway, train, plane
  • Tunnel
  • Magnetic resonance imaging (MRI)
  • Sunbed
  • narrow toilet
  • narrow corridors
  • crowded rooms like at concerts or in the cinema

People with claustrophobia then react with all signs of fear:

  • sweat
  • Chest tightness
  • Suffocation
  • Racing heart
  • Stomach cramp
  • Tremble
  • Fear of going crazy and losing control

Depending on the severity, the fear can increase to panic. Those affected then react with claustrophobia in more and more situations. You try to avoid all of these possibilities. In the worst case, this culminates in the fact that they no longer leave the house.

Causes and risk factors for claustrophobia

Usually there is no single cause for claustrophobia, but several come together. The most important are:

  • Genetic standby: As with other mental illnesses, there is a genetic component to claustrophobia.

  • Diseases: Chronic illnesses in particular, but also smoking, play a role in the development of claustrophobia.

  • Psyche negative pressure: Persistent stress or particularly stressful events often lead to claustrophobia. The death of a loved one or their serious illness, separation and loss of job play a role here.

  • childhood: People are particularly at risk if they were overprotected in childhood, i.e. the parents acted very anxiously and overly concerned about the child’s safety. The child has not learned to take responsibility and successfully survive a stressful situation alone.

  • Negative experience: On the one hand, a threatening feeling of tightness can traumatize. For example, if you are locked in a narrow car for hours after an accident or the elevator gets stuck. On the other hand, it can play a role if you had a stressful experience in a narrow space, for example your partner in an elevator informs you of the separation. Then the psyche can transfer the negative experience to the narrow space.

Diagnosis: This is how the doctor determines claustrophobia

The first point of contact is the family doctor, who can refer you to a psychologist or psychotherapist. In a detailed conversation, the expert can determine whether it is an anxiety disorder.

Questionnaires help to find out how severe the claustrophobia is and how much it burdens the patient. In addition, medical examinations should clarify whether palpitations and other symptoms are not caused by physical illnesses (exclusion diagnosis).

Successful treatment for claustrophobia

As threatening as the intangible fears of claustrophobia may be, this anxiety disorder can be treated well. And the earlier the therapy starts, the greater the chance that you can overcome claustrophobia. Then the chances of recovery are up to 80 percent. There are three methods available for treating claustrophobia, which can also be combined with one another:

  • Antidepressants: Some antidepressants suppress anxiety. These drugs relieve the patient especially at the beginning of therapy against claustrophobia. However, it should not be used as the only therapy or for too long. Because the basic problem is not solved permanently.

  • Psychodynamic therapy: In discussions with the psychotherapist, people with claustrophobia find out which fears and negative experiences from the past could be the cause of their claustrophobia. Together with the therapist, he can work through this and thus the signs of claustrophobia also disappear.

  • Behavior therapy: With the support of the therapist, the patient is confronted with the fear-inducing situations in a targeted manner and step by step. The claustrophobic experiences that he does not have to die when he is in an elevator. With each attempt, the fear becomes smaller. In addition, information should dissolve fear, for example which technical safety measures make it almost impossible that an elevator crashes or cannot be opened for days – until reason prevails over claustrophobia.

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