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Understanding the Cause of Claustrophobia

written by: Carma Haley Shoemaker • edited by: Paul Arnold • updated: 2/17/2011

Claustrophobia: most commonly known as the fear of small or enclosed spaces. The definition is well-known, but is there one cause of claustrophobia? This article on the cause of claustrophobia offers information to explain how claustrophobia develops.

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    Claustrophobia is an anxiety disorder that occurs when a person experiences extreme fear or panic when in confined spaces or places. Many believe that claustrophobia is the fear of the small places themselves, when in fact the fear is actually a result of a perceived inability to escape. According to the Anxiety Disorder Association of America, an estimated three to five percent of the general population suffers from claustrophobia.

    While knowing what the disorder is, understanding the cause of claustrophobia is not as black and white. One thing is for certain: regardless of the root or origin of the claustrophobia, no one is born with this fear. It must be learned.

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    Childhood experience

    One cause of claustrophobia is a negative experience during childhood. Many children play games such as hide-and-seek, will go “exploring” in closets or under beds, and will make forts from boxes and other materials. A mishap resulting in the child becoming trapped or unable to escape could create a traumatic childhood experience. This experience could lead to the child avoiding placing him or herself in a similar situation where a similar mishap could occur for fear of being trapped again. In this situation, the traumatic experience becomes the cause of claustrophobia.

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    Traumatic event

    Traumatic events that occur later in life can also be the cause of claustrophobia. An unpleasant, fearful or traumatic experience involving confined spaces (such as elevators or small rooms), or situations in which the person feels they can’t escape (such as trapped behind a locked door in a stair well or in the middle of a large crowd) can often trigger a panic attack. When this happens, the response to the experience establishes a connection in the brain linking the situation (being trapped) to anxiety and fear. As a result, this connection often becomes a cause of claustrophobia.

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    Parental Influence

    For some, the cause of their claustrophobia is a result of a parent or other authority figure who is also claustrophobic. When exposed to a situation, a parent or authority figure may express their fears to a child as an attempt to protect them or keep them from danger.

    For example, a mother warns her child to stay out of elevators because she worries that they can crash to the basement, or she removes closet doors to avoid someone being accidentally shut in. The adult is unaware they are passing on their fears and anxiety.

    A person who develops claustrophobia due to parental influence may never have previously experienced claustrophobic situations. Instead, they are made aware of the potential consequences of being in those situations which creates their fears and anxiety. These learned fears and anxiety become the cause of claustrophobia.

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    Resources

    Anxiety Disorder Association of America, http://www.adaa.org

    American Psychiatric Association, http://www.healthyminds.org