Coping With Claustrophobia
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Tips for Overcoming Claustrophobia

The condition has been with you for some time, but recently things have changed. It is more difficult to do the activities you enjoy. It is more challenging to be around the people you love. So many situations are linked to stress, anxiety, and fear that you find yourself alone at home more now than ever before.

The problem is claustrophobia. Claustrophobia is an excessive fear that is produced by spaces that are small and confined or ones that do not offer an easy point of escape.

This means that even a large room could produce fear if doors leading to the outside were locked or obstructed.

What Is Claustrophobia?

Claustrophobia is a type of specific phobia. People can and do have phobias associated with a large number of causes.

In mental health terms, the cause is called a phobic stimulus. Regardless of the stimulus, specific phobias share common symptoms of:

  • Consistent and immediate fear or anxiety about the situation.
  • Avoiding the situation or suffering from high levels of stress.
  • Experiencing fear that is disproportionally high compared to the danger.
  • Persisting and lasting fear for six months or more.
  • Significant stress that negatively impacts social, work, or financial health.

If someone with claustrophobia presented to a mental health professional, they would not receive a diagnosis of “claustrophobia” because this diagnosis does not exist currently. Instead, they would have a diagnosis of “specific phobia situational type.” The term claustrophobia remains accurate and widely used, though.

Claustrophobia Development

Several factors contribute to the development of claustrophobia in an individual. People who undergo a significant trauma may develop claustrophobia as a consequence.

For example, if someone was attacked in an elevator and could not escape, this could influence the formation of claustrophobia. Others may develop the condition from a strong association between certain spaces and anxiety or hearing about uncomfortable situations that different people endured.

The final group of people will have no awareness of what the phobia is related to or how it formed.

Certainly, not everyone exposed to these situations will develop claustrophobia. The difference is an interaction between various risk factors. People who are more likely to develop claustrophobia will have risk factors that are more numerous or intense like:

  • Higher anxiety or negativity.
  • The tendency to be more inhibited with behaviors.
  • Experiencing physical or sexual abuse.
  • Having parents that are overprotective or not present due to death or separation.
  • Having close family members with a phobia, which indicates some genetic link to the condition.
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Women are twice as likely as men to have a phobia. Even though the condition can form at any age, it is most common among teenagers.

Specific phobias affect about 16 percent of adolescents between 13 and 17 years old. The condition presents early in life, with 10 being the average age of onset.

Though these symptoms may begin early, they may not become consistent until adulthood. At this point, the condition is less likely to alleviate independently, so treatment will be needed.

Claustrophobia Treatment

Fortunately, treatment for claustrophobia and other specific phobias is straightforward and effective when facilitated with a trained mental health professional. Even though the process seems simple, there must be a complete evaluation and assessment to ensure that treatment is appropriate for the individual and the symptoms.

This is important also because people frequently have other phobias that can complicate the clinical picture. When managed incorrectly, symptoms of claustrophobia can be worsened by treatment attempts.

The best treatment method for claustrophobia is called exposure therapy. As the name suggests, exposure therapy involves having the person come in contact with the feared stimulus — closed spaces.

Even though exposure may be uncomfortable, refusal to expose will usually intensify the fears. Exposure helps through habituation, which is the body’s ability to adapt and accept the feelings of stress sparked by the situation.

With habituation, the link between the situation and the stress weakens, and the individual can form new associations that are more rational and realistic. As an indirect benefit, someone completing exposure therapy will feel more confident in their abilities and empowered to do more.

Systematic Desensitization

A major framework of exposure therapy is called systematic desensitization. In this process the individual will:

  • Meet with a clinician to complete an assessment to gain a clear picture of their claustrophobia as well as other complicating issues.
  • Develop and establish goals related to treatment.
  • Learn and practice relaxation techniques like deep breathing, autogenic training, and progressive muscle relaxation.
  • Focus on self-monitoring skills to attend to and report their level of distress.
  • Build a fear hierarchy — a ranked list of thoughts and behaviors related to claustrophobia that trigger anxiety.
  • Begin exposure with lowest ranked item.
  • Continue exposure until the highest item no longer triggers distress.

Someone with claustrophobia might have fears related to specific places. In systematic desensitization, the therapist may accompany the client to complete the exposure.

This type of exposure is called “in vivo exposure” because it occurs in the stressful location. Other options include “imaginary exposure” and “virtual reality exposure.”

No matter the style, the goal of the exposure is to raise the anxiety of the individual in a controlled way while practicing relaxation techniques. The client will notice their anxiety will peak for a period and then begin to reduce as long as they do not flee the situation.

When the level of distress reduces significantly, the exposure is complete. From here, the next exposure can be attempted.

Claustrophobia is a condition that can drastically impact lives in a very negative way. By understanding the condition and how it developments, one can gain motivation to seek out the most helpful treatment.

Fortunately, exposure therapy has a great track record of improving symptoms and establishing skills that the individual can utilize throughout their life. It will be uncomfortable but with discomfort comes freedom.