Claustrophobia: definition, causes, symptoms, and treatment

Claustrophobia: definition, causes, symptoms and treatment. A man sits in the corner of an elevator: in which situations claustrophobia occurs in sufferers and to what degree varies greatly. (Source: Getty Images/AndreyPopov)

Fear in elevators or of confined spaces: What is often colloquially referred to as claustrophobia is actually called claustrophobia. Learn more about triggers, symptoms and therapy options here.


Mysterious fear of space: What is claustrophobia??

Claustrophobia is an anxiety disorder. Affected persons fear confined and enclosed spaces, such as elevators. For some claustrophobics, even larger rooms can become a problem if there are many people crowded together, creating a feeling of confinement. The term claustrophobia is derived from the Latin word "claustrum." which means in German as much as cage, lock, latch.

differences between claustrophobia, claustrophobia and agoraphobia

In German, claustrophobia is often used as a synonym for claustrophobia. Even though this term is very common, it is actually wrong in this context. For claustrophobia in medicine refers to the fear of large places, the so-called agoraphobia. People suffering from this anxiety disorder avoid public places and situations; they are reluctant to leave their own homes.

The correct German term for claustrophobia, on the other hand, is Raumangst (fear of space). In order to suffer a claustrophobic attack, however, the affected person does not necessarily have to be in a confined space. In the case of pronounced claustrophobia, the mere idea of a corresponding situation is sufficient.

What are the causes of claustrophobia??

There is still no consensus among medical experts about the causes of claustrophobia. In general, several factors must coincide for a person to develop claustrophobia.

In addition to the widely used learning theory approach, in which it is assumed that claustrophobia is a learned behavior, there are also psychoanalytical and neurobiological approaches.

  • Learning theory approach: claustrophobia as a learned behavior
    According to this approach, people learn claustrophobia after they have been in a critical situation, such as being stuck in an elevator. If, in this situation, they have noticed anxiety symptoms such as trembling or sweating on themselves that cannot be explained rationally, these are perceived as potential danger and thus further intensify the fear.
    This leads those affected into a vicious circle: the symptoms confirm to the claustrophobic person that an elevator is a potential source of danger – even if they are not at all related to the actual getting stuck, but can be traced back to previous stress, for example. Nevertheless, in the brain a link is made between "riding in an elevator" and "being in a plane" and "danger produced. This leads to the fact that elevators are avoided in the future and the claustrophobia can manifest itself in such a way. With some concerning the fear in the course of the illnesses on similar situations expands, for example on the subway driving.
  • Neurobiological approaches: Inherited fear of space and neurotransmitters in the brain
    Other doctrines see the causes of claustrophobia also in the respective physical disposition. In the neurobiological approach, for example, it is assumed that fear of space can be inherited. Representatives of this approach assume that the autonomic nervous system in people affected by anxiety disorders is more unstable and more easily excitable from birth than in other people. Therefore they feel fear more quickly. In addition, the composition of the neurotransmitters in the brain is also important in neurobiology. If this is out of balance, this could be a cause of claustrophobia.
  • Psychoanalytic approach: fear as a symbol
    A completely different approach is taken in psychoanalytical theories. Here, the cause of claustrophobia, as well as other anxiety disorders, is seen in inner conflicts, which are shifted outward. Representatives of this approach assume that the fear of narrow spaces symbolically stands for an unconscious fantasy, which pushes to the surface through claustrophobia. The confined space itself would therefore in reality not instill any fear in the claustrophobic person.

Typical situations that can trigger claustrophobia

In which situations claustrophobia occurs in those affected and to what extent is very individual. For example, some sufferers only fear very specific situations such as riding in elevators, riding in a crowded subway, or crossing tunnels. Others, on the other hand, have a massive problem with anything that gives them a feeling of confinement. If darkness is added to the confinement, for example in tunnels, the claustrophobia is usually intensified even further.

Typical places and situations that can trigger fear in claustrophobics are:

  • Elevators
  • Subways and trains
  • Airplanes
  • narrow passages
  • MR T examinations in closed "tubes"
  • Solariums
  • Toilets
  • Full rooms, for example at concerts or in the cinema

Trembling, sweating, racing heart: Typical symptoms in claustrophobia

The very idea of being trapped in a confined space triggers typical anxiety symptoms in many claustrophobics. These include:

  • Heart palpitations
  • Sweating
  • Tremors
  • Stomach cramps
  • Tightness in the chest
  • Up to the fear of suffocating

In anxiety-provoking situations, claustrophobics fear losing control and being unable to save themselves in an emergency because, for example, there is no escape route. Affected individuals are afraid of dying, suffocating or at least fainting in confined spaces.

A common claustrophobia symptom is also the fear of going crazy. Although sufferers are aware that their fears are not appropriate, people with claustrophobia cannot prevent these symptoms on their own.

Claustrophobia diagnosis and therapy

Although the causes of claustrophobia are still not clearly understood, the condition can be treated quite successfully. This first requires a confirmed diagnosis. The treating physician or psychologist determines when the anxiety symptoms occur, how pronounced they are, and whether they are tied to specific situations or places. Another important factor in the diagnosis is how long the symptoms last. It can be helpful if the affected person keeps a so-called anxiety diary beforehand, in which he or she records situations and details about the symptoms.

The more detailed the affected person can describe the occurrence, duration and severity of the symptoms, the more reliably the treating expert can determine whether it is actually pure claustrophobia or possibly another anxiety disorder. Since the typical symptoms of claustrophobia also occur with various other illnesses, such as hyperthyroidism, a physical examination is also necessary. In this way, organic causes can be ruled out.

Different therapeutic approaches: Behavioral therapy and self-help

With claustrophobia, therapy is not always necessary. People who suffer only from mild claustrophobia can often overcome their fear and expose themselves to the situation. You may suffer from anxiety, but are perfectly capable of riding an elevator or subway, for example, if the situation absolutely requires it. However, if the claustrophobia becomes a severe burden or restriction in everyday life, therapy is advisable.

Behavioral therapy is often used to treat claustrophobia. The therapist shows the patient the thought patterns that have led to the fear of space. In cognitive behavioral therapy, an attempt is made to make the patient aware of the thought patterns that maintain his or her anxiety. If the therapy is successful, those affected learn to discard this thinking.

Another behavioral therapy measure is the so-called exposure procedure, better known in the vernacular as confrontation therapy. In the process, the affected person is exposed to the fear-inducing situation under the supervision of the therapist. Often happens gradually. For example, an elevator is first viewed only. In the further course of the therapy, the affected person then possibly only puts himself in with the door open at first, until he finally drives with it. The goal is for the patient to lose the fear through targeted and repeated confrontation with the fear-inducing situation. The link between fear and claustrophobic situations should also be broken in his or her brain.

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It is already helpful for other claustrophobics to talk about their anxiety disorder in support groups. Some sufferers have had good experiences learning relaxation techniques such as progressive muscle relaxation or autogenic training. These techniques can be used in situations where claustrophobia occurs, to stay calmer and avoid the typical symptoms.

If you suspect you suffer from claustrophobia, agoraphobia or possibly another anxiety disorder, you should consult your doctor. This can help you to assign the symptoms and refer you to a specialist if necessary.

Important notice: The information does not in any way replace professional advice or treatment by trained and recognized doctors. The contents of t-online can and may not be used to make independent diagnoses or to start treatment.

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