It is dark and you are trapped. You are kneeling in very close quarters; you discover that you cannot stand up. You extend your hands and blindly feel for the ground. You lower yourself to your hands and knees and you begin to crawl forward toward a bit of light, hoping you are moving in the direction that'll get you out. What are your reactions? You are certainly and justifiably frightened. You probably start breathing heavily and your pulse starts to race. You may start sweating and trembling. These are all normal reactions to being placed in a dangerous situation. However, if you experience these symptoms or feel like you are having a heart attack just by sitting in a car, you probably have claustrophobia. The word claustrophobia originates from the Latin word “claustrum” which means a shut in place and the Greek word “phobos” which means fear. Research has shown that approximately 6% of people suffer the disorder worldwide. However, the majority of claustrophobics are not receiving treatment for it.
Claustrophobia is considered an anxiety disorder that typically begins in childhood. Claustrophobics have an irrational fear of having no escape or being closed-in. The National Institute of Mental Health estimates that over 19 million adults have a form of a specific phobia, including claustrophobia. Diagnostic criteria for claustrophobia include a persistent and excessive fear of a specific situation, anxiety provocation upon exposure to the situation, and avoidance of the specific situation. The Anxiety Support Center further clarifies the diagnosis that claustrophobia is the fear of restriction or suffocation because of a perceived lack of escape from a particular place or situation; it isn’t simply the fear of being in an enclosed space. It frequently results in panic attack. People with claustrophobia will go to great lengths to avoid small spaces and situations that would trigger anxiety and panic responses. Examples of small spaces that could trigger a claustrophobic's anxiety include elevators/lifts, basements/cellars, small or locked rooms (jail cells), airplanes, cars, trains, subways, caves, tunnels, constrictive medical procedures/tests (MRIs) and crowded areas. Some people may even experience claustrophobia when wearing tight-necked clothing.
Symptoms of Claustrophobia
Individuals who suffer with claustrophobia experience immediate anxiety-related symptoms when exposed to their feared situation. Claustrophobics usually know that their fears are out of proportion with the actual threat; however, their reactions are automatic and uncontrollable. The symptoms of claustrophobia are actually identical to those that occur in the fight-or-flight response to genuine danger. The associated anxiety can range from mild feelings of apprehension to dread, horror, terror, or panic. The closer a claustrophobic is to the situation, the greater their reaction will be.
When in a small confined space, someone with claustrophobia may start to show the following symptoms: sweating, accelerated heart rate, increased blood pressure, hyperventilation, light headedness, fear of actual harm or illness, and panic attacks. Many claustrophobics remove clothing during attacks, believing it will relieve the symptoms. Most claustrophobics do everything in their power to avoid getting into constrictive situations. They will take the stairs instead of an elevator or escalator, go to the store in the middle of the night to avoid check-out lines, and drive only in non-peak traffic times. As soon as they enter a room they may urgently check out where the exits are and position themselves near them. At a crowded party they will position themselves near the door.
Causes of Claustrophobia