Claustrophobia is defined as a fear of enclosed spaces. Like any phobia, the severity of claustrophobia can vary widely from person to person. Sufferers may experience symptoms in small rooms, crawl spaces, crowds and many other situations. Some people with claustrophobia are uncomfortable on amusement park rides such as roller coasters that use secure restraints. MRI chambers and other medical testing can also be difficult or impossible for people who suffer from claustrophobia.
Symptoms of Claustrophobia
If you have claustrophobia, you may feel panicked when you are in a small space. You may sweat, shake or experience heart palpitations. You may cry or yell. You might attempt to get out of the situation by any means possible. Some people with claustrophobia find it difficult to breathe. Some say that it feels like the walls are closing in on them.
Eventually, you may begin to dread activities that could cause you to feel closed in. You might skip crowded parties or other events, avoid rides that use shoulder restraints, leave the door open when you enter small rooms or make many other concessions to your fear.
Claustrophobia can be a challenge when traveling, turning a well-deserved vacation into a nightmare. Flying gets the trip over with quickly, but forces you to confine yourself to a small seat surrounded by strangers. Train travel provides large comfortable seats, and allows you to walk around, but takes a long time. Driving can feel confining, but gives you the ability to stop for stretch breaks whenever you like.
Claustrophobia can severely limit your life, causing you to miss out on things you would otherwise enjoy. Medically, claustrophobia can be dangerous because it could cause you to avoid having necessary MRI tests. Many people discover the severity of their claustrophobia for the first time when undergoing MRI scans.
Causes of Claustrophobia
Researchers are not yet certain what factors may cause claustrophobia. Many speculate that it may be rooted in a bad childhood experiences. Others believe that it may be a warping of an evolutionary survival mechanism. Either way, it appears that a history of being nervous in enclosed spaces may eventually lead to full-blown claustrophobia.
Psychotherapy, particularly cognitive-behavioral therapy (CBT) has been shown to be quite successful in treating claustrophobia. Your doctor may also prescribe anti-anxiety medications or antidepressants to help manage your symptoms.
Behavioral techniques such as systematic desensitization and flooding are often used in conjunction with cognitive methods such as the Stop! Technique. The methods work together to help change both your behaviors and your feelings of fear.
A 2007 study, published in CyberPsychology and Behavior, showed that immersive virtual reality may be effective in helping those who suffer from claustrophobia get through a fear-inducing event. Researchers found that virtual reality was more successful than distraction with music in helping sufferers successfully complete an MRI scan.
Only two clients, both of whom were diagnosed with claustrophobia, were involved in the study. Both attempted 10-minute mock MRI scans, but reported high levels of anxiety and asked to terminate the scans early. For a second attempt, one was distracted with music, while the other was immersed in a virtual reality world. The client who listened to music reported high anxiety and asked to terminate the scan. The client immersed in virtual reality was able to successfully complete the scan, reporting low anxiety and a high feeling of self-efficacy.
This research is relatively new, and involved only two clients. More studies will need to be performed in order to determine whether this is true in all or most situations.
Some people find relief through hypnosis and other alternative forms of treatment. Others find that self-help methods such as visualization can help them through claustrophobia attacks. If you decide to try alternative methods of treatment, be sure to get the approval of your mental health professional.
Claustrophobia can be debilitating if not treated. However, treatment is usually successful. If you are experiencing any symptoms of claustrophobia, it is important to contact a mental health professional or your family doctor as soon as possible.Sources:
Fact Sheet: Claustrophobia. Better Health Channel. Government of Victoria, Australia. October 2007. May 5, 2008. http://www.betterhealth.vic.gov.au/bhcv2/bhcarticles.nsf/pages/Claustrophobia?open
Garcia-Palacios, Azucena, Hoffman, Hunter, Richards, Todd, Seibel, Eric, Sharar, Sam. “Use of Virtual Reality Distraction to Reduce Claustrophobia Symptoms during a Mock Magnetic Resonance Imaging Brain Scan: A Case Report.” CyberPsychology & Behavior. 10(3): 485-488.June 1, 2007. May 5, 2008.