claustrophobia - inside airplane on aisle seat

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Claustrophobia is a fear of enclosed spaces or physical restriction. It is estimated that approximately 12.5% of the population struggle with Claustrophobia, mainly affecting women. Accompanying anxiety symptoms can vary in severity depending on the individual and the situation. 

The phobia becomes an issue when it impedes an individual’s daily functioning and inconveniences them to change behaviors to mitigate the effects of anxiety experienced. 

What Causes Claustrophobia

Typically, individuals develop and notice symptoms of Claustrophobia in childhood. Development of the disorder can be attributed to a number of sources, physiological, psychological, and environmental. 

Physiological reasons could include malfunctioning of the amygdala, the part of the brain that is responsible for fear responses, where fear sensitization is heightened, thus limiting a person from “learning” from past experiences to lower levels of fear. 

Some individuals may have a genetic predisposition to developing Claustrophobia, where the particular gene responsible for it is mainly expressed in the amygdala and central nervous system. 

Psychological explanations include experiencing a traumatic event as a child where you might have been trapped in a confined space or even as an adult, such as being trapped in an elevator. 

Environmental explanations could be attributed to exposure to a parent’s claustrophobic tendencies. Children are highly susceptible to learned behaviors through caretakers, thus internalizing confined spaces as being a threatening environment. 

Signs and Triggers of Claustrophobia

The signs of Claustrophobia manifest themselves similarly to that of an anxiety attack when an individual feels they have been exposed to contamination. The general signs, according to the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, include four (or more) of the following:

  • Palpitations, pounding heart, or accelerated heart rate
  • Sweating
  • Trembling or shaking
  • Sensations of shortness of breath or smothering
  • Feeling of choking
  • Chest pain or discomfort
  • Nausea or abdominal distress
  • Feeling dizzy, unsteady, lightheaded, or faint
  • Derealization (feelings of unreality) or depersonalization (being detached from oneself)
  • Fear of losing control or “going crazy”
  • Need to relieve bowels
  • Paresthesias (numbness or tingling sensation)
  • Chills or hot flushes.

Individuals may also find themselves having psychological symptoms including:

  • Fear of losing control
  • Fear of death
  • Fear of fainting
  • An overwhelming feeling of dread

Claustrophobia and Air Travel

Being in an airplane provides a myriad of potential triggers to set off anxiety related to Claustrophobia. Oftentimes individuals with Claustrophobia dread an upcoming journey due to feeling confined in a relatively small crowded space for an extended time. 

The first step to overcoming any phobia is to understand the triggers of anxiety. With Claustrophobia, 90% of people that travel unprepared reported feeling overwhelmed during the flight. 

Outlined in the next section is an overview of ways to manage and cope with Claustrophobia.  

Managing Claustrophobia

Cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) 

CBT is an evidence-based psychological treatment modality that aims to rewire perceptions, thoughts, emotions, and behaviors relating to a particular situation/pattern. It is highly effective and targets negative and distorted thinking patterns of fears related to the phobia.

Exposure therapy is a branch of CBT where individuals are gradually and progressively exposed to anxiety-provoking stimuli to eventually overcome distorted thought patterns. 

With therapy, you would also learn stress management techniques such as breathing and grounding techniques that would help you deescalate your reaction to a potential trigger. 

Ask your doctor about medication

For those that struggle with extreme anxiety, medications, particularly SSRIs or Benzodiazepines, in combination with therapy, have proven to be highly effective in managing distressing symptoms. 

Lifestyle changes and self-care

As with overcoming any symptoms of illness, self-care is important in maintaining a healthy brain. Proper diet, sleep, and exercise are ways you can reduce levels of anxiety across the board.  

Seeking out support is another means of gaining insight into your own struggles through others’ shared experiences. You may be able to learn of ways to cope and process your own fears surrounding the phobia.


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Written by
Shenella Karunaratne, Staff Writer

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