Medically reviewed by Jill Johnson, FNP
Written by Our Editorial Team
Last updated 3/25/2022
Have you ever felt fearful and intensely uncomfortable in a confined, enclosed space, such as an elevator, tunnel or subway train? That’s likely claustrophobia: an intense fear of enclosed spaces.
While it’s common to prefer a spacious, large area to an enclosed, small space, people with claustrophobia often feel extreme anxiety in enclosed environments — symptoms out of proportion to the real risks.
Like other phobias, claustrophobia can have a significant impact on your wellbeing. It can stop you from participating in certain activities and make some aspects of your life, such as living in an apartment building with an elevator, extremely uncomfortable and unpleasant.
The good news is that claustrophobia is treatable, usually with therapy, medication or a mix of approaches.
Read on to learn more about claustrophobia, as well as the symptoms you may experience if you’re claustrophobic.
Below we’ve also explained why claustrophobia may develop, as well as your options for treating this common phobia, controlling your symptoms and improving your quality of life.
People with specific phobias have an extreme, irrational fear of certain places, people, activities or items. These fears may not have any obvious cause and appear completely out of proportion to the perceived risk or danger involved in a certain situation.
Phobias like claustrophobia go beyond the typical anxiety a person might feel if they’re forced to squeeze into a crowded elevator or board a busy train. Instead of causing mild anxiety, they can seriously affect a person’s mental wellbeing and prevent them from living a normal life.
Claustrophobia is a common phobia. Approximately 12.5 percent of the population is affected by some degree of claustrophobia, with women more likely to be affected than men.
Many people affected by claustrophobia also suffer from other specific phobias, such as fears of specific animals, flying, heights or conditions such as social phobia.
The symptoms of claustrophobia are similar to those of other specific phobias. When you spend time in an environment that triggers your claustrophobia (such as a confined, closed space), you may develop the following symptoms:
Overwhelming fear and/or anxiety
A feeling that you’re losing control
Feelings of dread and severe stress
An intense urge to leave your current environment
It’s common and normal to know that these feelings are irrational, but still feel like you can’t fully control them when you’re in a claustrophobia-inducing situation.
As an anxiety disorder, claustrophobia can also cause physical symptoms. These may include:
Tachycardia (a fast heart rate)
Severe claustrophobia may cause you to experience a panic attack. During a panic attack, you may become faint or dizzy, feel as if you’re choking and experience symptoms such as severe shortness of breath, heart palpitations, fear of suffocation and a sense of impending doom.
The symptoms of claustrophobia can potentially develop in any enclosed, tight space. Common spaces and environments that can act as triggers for claustrophobia include:
Elevators, especially those that are small or crowded
Tunnels, underpasses and manmade underground spaces
Trains, subways, buses and other forms of public transportation
Cars and other vehicles with locked doors
Changing rooms in retail stores
Drive-through car washes
Magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) machines
Engine rooms and other industrial environments
Other medical devices that enclose your body
Small hotel rooms or dorm beds
Closets or supply rooms
Planes and helicopters
Because these environments are very common, even mild claustrophobia can potentially have a serious impact on your daily life.
If you have claustrophobia, you might find yourself engaging in avoidance behavior by changing your habits and daily routine to limit your exposure to environments that you think could result in the onset of claustrophobia symptoms.
This could mean skipping events that force you to spend time in small spaces, keeping the door open when you’re in a small room, taking the stairs instead of using an elevator or just going out of your way to avoid spaces that make you feel “boxed in.”
Over the long term, the physical and mental effects of claustrophobia may contribute to chronic stress. This can have a variety of negative effects on your health, including an increased risk of developing problems such as high blood pressure, heart disease and diabetes.
Experts believe that a combination of genetic and environmental factors can all play a role in the development of specific phobias such as claustrophobia.
A common theory is that claustrophobia is caused by excessive activation of a part of your brain called the amygdala. As part of your limbic system, your amygdala is responsible for managing feelings of anxiety, aggression, social cognition and fear conditioning.
Research has found that when the amygdala is stimulated directly with electrotherapy, it evokes fear and anxiety responses.
Currently, researchers think that disruptions in the amygdala-frontal network of the brain may play an important role in the development of simple phobias like claustrophobia. They’ve even identified specific genetic risks that may be involved in these disruptions and their mental effects.
As a specific phobia, claustrophobia is a type of anxiety disorder. Certain risk factors for anxiety may also increase your risk of claustrophobia. General risk factors for anxiety disorders include:
Exposure to negative environments or a stressful, traumatic event, particularly in early childhood, adolescence or early adulthood.
Physical health issues, such as thyroid disorders, heart arrhythmias and other issues that may cause or worsen the physical symptoms of anxiety.
Certain personality traits and characteristics as a child, such as shyness or behavioral inhibition.
A personal history of other phobias, anxiety disorders or mental health issues, or close family members with a history of mental health issues.
Our guide to the causes of anxiety goes into more detail about the factors that may affect your risk of developing a phobia or other anxiety disorder.
Claustrophobia is treatable, usually with psychotherapy and, if necessary, medication to help you control your symptoms.
If you think you’re claustrophobic, you can seek help by talking to a mental health provider. You can do this by asking your primary care provider for a mental health referral, or by reaching out to a licensed mental health professional in your area.
Your mental health provider may ask you questions about your symptoms and the effects that they have on your life. Make sure to give them as much information as possible so that they’re able to understand your needs and reach an accurate diagnosis of claustrophobia.
If you have claustrophobia, your mental health provider will likely suggest that you take part in psychotherapy, or talk therapy.
Several forms of psychotherapy are used to treat claustrophobia, including cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT). One form of cognitive therapy that your mental health provider may recommend is interoceptive exposure, which is a type of exposure therapy.
Interoceptive exposure involves exposing you to the physical sensation of anxiety in a safe and controlled environment, such as using virtual reality. Many people with claustrophobia find that this type of treatment helps them overcome their fear of harm and other symptoms.
Not everyone achieves full recovery with interoceptive therapy. It may take time for you and your mental health provider to find the most effective form of treatment for controlling your symptoms and improving your quality of life.
Your mental health provider may recommend using medication to control your claustrophobia symptoms. There are several types of medication used to manage claustrophobia, including antidepressants and anxiety medications called benzodiazepines.
Benzodiazepines are fast-acting medications that control the symptoms of anxiety. They work by enhancing the effects of gamma-aminobutyric acid (GABA), a natural chemical that reduces activity in your central nervous system and promotes calmness.
Your mental health provider may prescribe a benzodiazepine if you occasionally need to spend time in environments that trigger your claustrophobia symptoms.
Benzodiazepines are effective, but they can be habit-forming. Your mental health provider may recommend using these medications only in the short term or when needed to reduce your risk of developing dependence.
Some antidepressants, such as selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors (SSRIs), are also used to treat claustrophobia and other phobias. These medications work by increasing levels of natural chemicals called neurotransmitters, which help regulate your moods and levels of stress.
Other medications, including hydrocortisone, quetiapine and cycloserine, are currently subject to research as potential adjunct treatments for claustrophobia.
Many mental disorders and phobias improve with changes to your habits and lifestyle. You may find it easier to deal with claustrophobia by trying some of the following techniques and lifestyle changes:
Exercise regularly. While research on exercise and claustrophobia is limited, studies have found that regular physical exercise significantly reduces the symptoms of anxiety and may have protective effects against anxiety disorders in general. Try to stay physically active by getting at least 150 minutes of moderate-intensity aerobic exercise per week (for example, brisk walking or biking around your neighborhood), plus two or more muscle-strengthening workouts per week. (This is what’s recommended for adults ages 18 to 64.)
Take part in a support group. Talking to other people with claustrophobia in a group setting can help you to cope with your symptoms and learn new strategies for improving your quality of life.We offer anonymous online support groups that you can join from home. Most mid-sized and large cities also have support groups for people with anxiety disorders or other forms of mental illness.
Reach out to trusted friends and family. Spending time by yourself with limited social contact can affect your executive function, reduce the quality of your sleep and make depression and anxiety symptoms more severe.If you need someone to talk to about your claustrophobia, don’t hesitate to reach out to your trusted friends or family members. Not only can they provide emotional support — they may also be able to help you implement the techniques you learn in therapy.
Try mindfulness meditation. This form of meditation involves focusing solely on the present, then accepting your thoughts and feelings without judgment. You can meditate for a few minutes a day at home or as part of a group meditation class.Although there’s no scientific research on meditation and claustrophobia, some research has found that mindfulness meditation programs are effective at improving the symptoms of anxiety.
Limit caffeine and other stimulants. Although caffeine is generally healthy in small doses, a meta-analysis published in 2022 found a link between caffeine intake and a risk of panic attacks in people with panic disorder (PD), a common anxiety disorder.While it’s okay to drink coffee in moderation, try to avoid overusing coffee, energy drinks and other caffeinated beverages.
Use breathing techniques to stop panic. Some research shows that slow breathing techniques may help reduce the severity of symptoms that can occur when you panic, such as in confined, crowded spaces.If you notice the symptoms of a claustrophobia-related anxiety attack starting to develop, try using deep breathing exercises to control your body’s anxiety response.
Improve your sleep habits. Research has found that people are more likely to feel anxious and distressed when they’re sleep deprived. Try to sleep for seven hours or longer per night to make sure that you feel fully rested.If you find it difficult to fall asleep, try setting a consistent bedtime, keeping your sleep environment dark and quiet, limiting caffeine after lunch and keeping your phone and other electronic devices outside your bedroom.
Claustrophobia is a common phobia that can cause serious physical and emotional symptoms, especially when it’s left untreated.
If you’re prone to claustrophobic fear and think you might have claustrophobia, it’s important to get help, either by talking to your primary care provider or by connecting with a licensed mental health provider online using our mental health services.
With the right combination of therapy, lifestyle changes and, if appropriate, medication, you can gain more control over your symptoms and feel calmer in confined or crowded spaces.
Interested in learning more about handling claustrophobia or generally improving your mental health? Our guide to how anxiety can cause irrational thoughts and fears goes into more detail on the science behind phobias, and our free mental health resources share proven strategies for coping with anxiety and stress.