Claustrophobia is an intense fear of closed spaces. When exposed to the phobic situation or experiences, the person may have an immediate anxiety response, taking the form of a panic attack. Claustrophobics tend to avoid such things as elevators, tunnels, subway trains, small rooms, medical diagnostic machines, underground parking, and closets. It’s not the situation causing the fear and anxiety, but instead, the negative consequence that could result from the room, situation, or experience.
As with all phobias, there are treatments that can help an individual control or overcome the condition.
Claustrophobia treatments include behavior therapy, exposure therapy, relaxation therapy, medications, or combinations of two or more techniques over time.
Behavior therapy includes identifying trigger points and recognizing that reactions to triggers are learned instead of natural. Through visualization and positive thinking, the individual learns to disassociate feelings of danger with the confined space.
Relaxation therapy is used in claustrophobia treatments to reduce anxiety, refocus attention away from the trigger, and aid in regaining a sense of control. The Diagnostic and Statistic Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM-IV, APA, 1994) classifies claustrophobia as an anxiety disorder with a specific phobia. Therefore, therapies used for treating anxiety have also shown positive results when used to treat claustrophobia. Relaxation therapy include: deep-breathing, visualization, affirmations, and meditation exercises. Over time, patients become learn to utilize particular relaxation methods when they are exposed to a claustrophobic setting.
Breathing re-training can be effective when coupled with other claustrophobia treatments. When facing an anxiety provoking situation, a common panic reaction is an increased breathing pattern. This increased breathing can lead to hyperventilation, giving rise to further consequences that are felt, heard, and seen, further increasing the anxiety level. The goal of breathing re-training is to allow the patient to change fast breathing patterns brought on by panic or fear, to slow breathing patterns.
One of the most frequently used claustrophobia treatments is cognitive-behavioral therapy. According to the National Institute of Mental Health, approximately 75 percent of people affected manage or overcome their phobia through cognitive-behavioral therapy. It’s important for patients to learn the causes and reasons behind their fear and anxiety. Once uncovered, therapists encourage patients to confront and change the thoughts, beliefs, and attitudes that led to their feelings of fear. Overcoming claustrophobia may be accomplished through replacing the negative thoughts that cause the fear with thoughts more rational and calming.
One of the most common claustrophobia treatments is referred to “systematic desensitization,” or exposure therapy. Exposure therapy gradually allows the patient to confront their trigger situation – such as an elevator or room with no windows – in a safe and controlled way. The exposures are gradual, usually moving from imagination and visualization, to photos, and then finally, into reality. Eventually, the patient is able to confront the source of their fear without anxiety. They are desensitized.
Many claustrophobia treatments attempt to protect patients from exposure to fears. However, flooding is the extreme form of exposure therapy. Flooding exposing patients to the situation they fear until their anxiety passes. It’s believed by doing so, patients will have the realization of encountering a worse-case scenario and overcoming their fear. The patient, having suffered no actual harm or death, will no longer suffer from their claustrophobia. While extreme, some believe flooding is a powerful and effective form of therapy.
When modeling is used as a claustrophobia treatment, the patient observes others taking part in situations they fear – such as getting into and out of an elevator, entering, and exiting a small room, walking into a cave, etc. As the patient continues to observe other people confronting the situation without fear, they are encouraged to imitate or model that confidence.
Used for many anxiety disorders, hypnosis is an alternative treatment for claustrophobes who don't wish to take medication. For some, hypnosis can provide the relaxed state necessary to confront and overcome their claustrophobia. Hypnosis may include regression hypnotherapy to help the patient remember traumatic events that led to claustrophobia. Once the event is found, the patient learns to look at the event as an adult, decreasing anxiety and panic.
Medications may be used in combination with other claustrophobia treatments. The most commonly prescribed for claustrophobia include anti-anxiety, antidepressants and beta-blockers, typically used to treat physical symptoms of anxiety, such as heart pounding. Tranquilizers may also be prescribed in extreme situations.
Anxiety Therapy. Help Guide. (2011). www.helpguide.org/mental/anxiety_therapy.htm. Accessed January 2011.
Claustrophobia. Epigee. (2010). https://www.epigee.org/mental_health/claustrophobia.html. Accessed January 2011.