Panic - The Real Cause of Claustrophobia

anxiety panic phobia Sep 06, 2022

Claustrophobia – a fear of confined or crowded spaces - has a little known connection to Panic Attacks.

Keep reading to find out more about the causes of Claustrophobia and how it links to panic.

The intensity of Claustrophobia can vary from one person to another.

It can cause severe anxiety and panic attacks.

And for some who struggle with claustrophobia, even the thought of being in a confined space may be enough to make you squirm.

In terms of numbers – about 2.2% of the total population experience claustrophobia. And it is more common among women than men.

It generally starts for people around 20 years old.

And most people don’t get any support for it (their entire lives), despite the fact that it’s one of the more impairing and disruptive phobias due to crowds and tight spaces (like elevators) being a common occurrence in our modern day-to-day lives.


Common Triggers

In fact, here are some of the common triggers of claustrophobia that will cause a spike in anxiety. Think about how often you experience going into one of these:

- Elevators

- Public transport (like buses, trains and subways)

- Bathroom or changing stalls

- Markets and shopping malls

- Small cafes

- Airplanes (often worsening when the doors close, takeoff begins, or there’s turbulence)

- Rooms with sealed or closed windows (like cinemas or basements)

- Being stuck in heavy traffic

- Revolving doors

- MRI or CT Scanning machines

- Other spaces or situations where a quick escape seems difficult.

- And more recently, there are lots of people experiencing these anxiety spikes from having to wear a mask.


Some people with Claustrophobia may only experience mild anxiety in these kinds of situations, but for others it may cause an intense panic attack.


You could expect to feel your body

- Trembling

- Feeling dizzy or lightheaded

- You could experience chills or sweating

- A sensation of choking

- Shortness of breath or rapid breathing

- A tight chest or chest pains

- Hyperventilation

- Nausea

- A headache

- Dry mouth

- Ringing ears

- A feeling of disorientation

- An of course, a rapid heart rate


Psychologically, you may find yourself

- Experiencing a feeling of dread or a sense of doom

- Fear that the door will shut when you’re in an enclosed space or like the walls are closing in on you

- Feel like you’re going to faint or like you’re going to die

- A sense of loss of control

- Worry about panicking

- And going out of your way to avoid confined spaces


So what causes Claustrophobia?

Well, I’ll give you the potential original causes of Claustrophobia (often called precipitating factors) and then I’ll fill you in on what’s causing it each time you get a big spike of adrenaline (the maintaining factors).


So, first up,

Childhood Trauma

You could have experienced being bullied:

People who were bullied as children often report feeling suffocated in confined spaces. That may be a result of the helplessness experienced around these events combined with being pincered into a confined space by the bully or bullies.

Child abuse or being punished in closed spaces:

Being shut in enclosed rooms, bathrooms and closets can sometimes have occurred in the early life of people with claustrophobia.


Or it can be from Trauma as a teen or adult:

Being in an Accident

Like a car or plane accident. Many people experience the fear of being stuck in such situations again, which gradually develops into a phobia.

Or being tapped in an enclosed space

Being trapped in a closed space for a long time as an adult can be known to lead to claustrophobia due to the helplessness and possibly a fear of suffocation.

Take for example, the case of 21 miners who were trapped underground for 14 days, during which six of the miners died of suffocation.

After their rescue, they were followed up on for research.

All but one were greatly affected by the experience, and over half of them developed claustrophobia.

The only miner who did not develop any noticeable symptoms was the one who acted as a leader while they were trapped down there.

Which lends credence to the idea that helplessness and loss of control plays a part.


Then lastly, there are

Genetic and Environmental Factors

For example the gene GPm6a may create a propensity for developing claustrophobia.

And of course there’s learning from the environment you grew up in.

If one of your parents shows a fear of enclosed spaces, like if your mum didn’t like elevators,

then, due to mirroring or modelling, our brain concludes that enclosed spaces are dangerous from this observation, just as you might if your mum feared spiders.


Maintaining Factors

Now, what about those maintaining factors that cause your adrenaline to spike when thinking about or going into a confined space – why does that happen?

Well, this comes down to beliefs.

There are 2 kinds of beliefs that tend to cause a fear of confined spaces.

  1. A belief that you’ll probably die from suffocation or starvation if you get stuck in a confined space.
  2. That being in a confined space will trigger a panic attack.

In my experience number 2 is by far the most common.

But why would we get as anxious about a Panic Attack as about dying?

Well, that’s because of the beliefs we may hold about panic.

We tend to be deathly afraid of panic when we believe that it will lead to death, or insanity, or a catastrophic loss of reputation.

When a belief like this is in place, then going into a confined space, which might trigger-off a panic attack, would become very threatening.



Treatment for Claustrophobia

often involves treatment for panic first, followed by gradual exposure to confined spaces you’ve been avoiding or struggling with.

To help you with this, I’ve got a video that walks you through the first steps of this exposure.

Starting with exposure to words that hold some association to claustrophobia,

Then virtual exposure to images and videos of confined spaces.

So dive in to get started on your anxiety journey to improve claustrophobia right away.

So there you go! The real cause of Claustrophobia is often a fear of the confined space triggering a panic attack, and believing that we won’t be able to cope with that level of anxiety.


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