While most people have fears that make them uncomfortable, phobias can prevent a person from living their life safely and effectively. Tight spaces can make people squirm or feel uneasy, and for most, these situations are banal or inconvenient.
However, for someone who experiences claustrophobia, these daily situations pose a significant risk to their mental health. Many claustrophobia myths persist that can prevent people from seeking critical help. However, learning claustrophobia facts can help increase understanding, de-stigmatize this mental health condition and get people the treatment they need.
1. Myth: Claustrophobia is a rare condition.
Fact: Claustrophobia is a common phobia.
Claustrophobia is a specific phobia, according to psychiatrists. Officially an anxiety disorder, claustrophobia involves a persistent, intense fear of confined spaces. This fear is far greater than the threat, either perceived or real. While claustrophobia statistics can give us an idea of the prevalence of a condition, they do not necessarily do justice to the severity of the impact on a person’s life.
Nonetheless, sources estimate that claustrophobia affects 5-7% of the world’s population, meaning that millions of people struggle with this phobia. Claustrophobia is a relatively common phobia, which is unsurprising considering that confinement makes many people uneasy. Avoidance of small, confined spaces would be a highly protective mechanism from an evolutionary perspective as this fear or caution would cause humans to avoid spaces that would historically have caused them harm.
However, claustrophobia involves more extreme anxiety that affects people in otherwise safe spaces.
2. Myth: Claustrophobia can be easily avoided.
Fact: Many claustrophobia triggers exist in everyday life.
People with phobias usually go to great lengths to escape their fears. When fears show up in everyday situations, however, they can impact a person’s quality of life, health, and even income potential. While it may seem easy to avoid claustrophobia, many situations in daily life involve small, tight and confined spaces, and the person who has claustrophobia will go to great lengths to avoid them.
Tight spaces are common, and people with claustrophobia may avoid:
- Office elevators
- A port-a-potty at a music festival
- The crawlspace in a basement
- The subway or public transit
- Overly crowded spaces
Someone struggling with claustrophobia may take great steps to avoid these situations and therefore may miss out on joyful life moments, or be unable to accomplish important tasks. Many situations can arise that pose a significant problem for people with claustrophobia.
The problem of MRI-based claustrophobia is common enough to receive attention from researchers. An MRI scan involves being confined in a long, narrow tube for diagnostic medical imaging purposes, but someone with claustrophobia may require anti-anxiety or sedative medications to undergo an MRI, or otherwise might simply avoid the testing altogether, resulting in underdiagnosis of health conditions.
While most people are mildly uncomfortable in enclosed spaces, people with claustrophobia may have trouble with daily activities.
3. Myth: Being uncomfortable in a tight space means you’re claustrophobic.
Fact: Claustrophobia is a psychiatric condition that involves symptoms of distress and panic.
A feeling of uneasiness in tight spaces is different from claustrophobia, which involves a physical panic response. Furthermore, the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Psychiatric Disorders, fifth edition, or DSM-, recognizes claustrophobia as a phobic disorder.
The DSM provides evidence-based diagnostic criteria for psychiatrists to accurately diagnose and treat mental health conditions. For example, the definition of claustrophobia requires psychological distress, panic attack symptoms when exposed to the phobia and extreme avoidance of the phobia.
For someone with claustrophobia, panic attack symptoms may include:
- Rapid heart rate or palpitations
- Shortness of breath
- Flushes or chills
- Dizziness or lightheadedness
- Chest pain
As an additional example, someone who has a minor discomfort of tight spaces would not avoid an airplane bathroom if they have to use it, but someone with claustrophobia would have significant trouble in this situation. There also seems to be a genetic component to claustrophobia.
4. Myth: Claustrophobia is similar to agoraphobia.
Fact: These two fears seem related, but are distinct.
While they are both phobias that are classified as anxiety disorders and they may have some overlap, there are key differences between these two conditions. Agoraphobia is the fear of being in a public space where you might become trapped, helpless or embarrassed. Unfortunately, agoraphobia can cause people to become housebound.
There may be some places where agoraphobia vs. claustrophobia overlap, including in a crowded elevator or on transit. Too many people in one space may cause someone to feel either agoraphobic or claustrophobic, or this situation could trigger people who face either phobia to have a panic attack. However, while someone with claustrophobia will not feel anxiety in an open space, someone with agoraphobia can struggle significantly in such an environment.
Distinguishing these two phobias is crucial for effective treatment. While triggers can overlap, they can also be very different.
5. Myth: Claustrophobia is a lifelong disorder.
Fact: Phobias including claustrophobia can be treated.
While overcoming claustrophobia may seem like an impossible task, treatment from qualified medical professionals can help someone manage symptoms of this mental health condition. It is also critical to diagnose and treat any co-occurring mental health disorders that may co-exist independently or as a result of the claustrophobia, such as drug or alcohol addictions, anxiety or depression.
Claustrophobia treatment may involve exposure therapy, meaning that a person is safely and gradually exposed to their phobia until the psychological effect of the phobia is lessened. Cognitive behavioral therapy and certain medications are also used to treat this condition. These therapies should be performed by an experienced professional.
Center for the Treatment and Study of Anxiety. “Specific Phobias.” Accessed May 31, 2019. Kinderman, Peter. “How Normal Is Claustrophobia?” Independent, March 7, 2016. Accessed May 31, 2019. Katznelson R, Djaiani GN, Minkovich L, et al. “Prevalence of claustrophobia and magnetic resonance imaging after coronary artery bypass graft surgery.” Neuropsychiatric Disease and Treatment, 2008. Accessed May 31, 2019. Victoria State Government. “Claustrophobia.” April 2016. Accessed May 31, 2019.
Center for the Treatment and Study of Anxiety. “Specific Phobias.” Accessed May 31, 2019.
Kinderman, Peter. “How Normal Is Claustrophobia?” Independent, March 7, 2016. Accessed May 31, 2019.
Katznelson R, Djaiani GN, Minkovich L, et al. “Prevalence of claustrophobia and magnetic resonance imaging after coronary artery bypass graft surgery.” Neuropsychiatric Disease and Treatment, 2008. Accessed May 31, 2019.
Victoria State Government. “Claustrophobia.” April 2016. Accessed May 31, 2019.
Medical Disclaimer: The Recovery Village aims to improve the quality of life for people struggling with a substance use or mental health disorder with fact-based content about the nature of behavioral health conditions, treatment options and their related outcomes. We publish material that is researched, cited, edited and reviewed by licensed medical professionals. The information we provide is not intended to be a substitute for professional medical advice, diagnosis or treatment. It should not be used in place of the advice of your physician or other qualified healthcare provider.